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Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)

ParanormanDirectors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland

Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.

As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.

From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.

That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)

The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.

Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.

The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.

The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.

In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.

Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.

Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Lunatics and Laughter Day 9: Arachnophobia (1990)

arachnophobiaDirector: Frank Marshall

Writers: Don Jakoby, Al Williams & Wesley Strick

Cast: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Stuart Pankin, Brian McNamara, Mark L. Taylor, Henry Jones, Peter Jason, James Handy, Roy Brocksmith, Kathy Kinney

Plot: Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) takes photographer Jerry Manley (Mark L. Taylor) with him on a hunt through the Amazon rainforest, hoping to discover new species of insects and arachnids. Manley has been ill, and fights a fever as they march through Venezuela. The search bears fruit – the team discovers a large, highly aggressive spider Atherton has never seen before. When the still-sick Manley goes to bed, a male “General” spider that stowed away in his pack bites him, killing him in seconds. When his body is found, his death is attributed to the fever and he is sent back to the United States, with the spider that bit him hiding inside.

Manley’s body is returned to his family in Canaima, where town mortician Irv Kendall (Roy Brocksmith) opens the box and finds him shriveled up, drained of fluid, and in a state that’s not at all conducive to an open casket. The spider sneaks outside, gets snared by a bird and is carried to the barn of a house where Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his family are moving in, Ross replacing the retiring town doctor Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones). Ross even starts a wine cellar in the basement. When his son discovers a house spider, the arachnophobic Ross has his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) take it to the barn, unaware of the enormous Venezuelan spider hiding in the hay. That night the spiders meet, and mate.

Ross is shocked the next day when Dr. Metcalf tells him he’s decided not to retire after all, crushing Ross, who was supposed to inherit his patients and establish a practice. As he leaves Metcalf’s office he encounters Sheriff Lloyd Parsons (Stuart Pankin) writing him a ticket. He’s rescued by Margaret Hollins (Mary Carver), a retired schoolteacher who dislikes Metcalf and is glad to have the option of another doctor. She’s pleased to be Ross’s first patient. Unfortunately, she’s also his only patient.

Mary turns out to be perfectly healthy, and she tries to cheer him by offering to throw a “Welcome to Canaima” party. While he’s at the office, Molly goes to photograph the barn and discovers a gargantuan spider web in the rafters. She misses the huge egg sac that soon looses a new generation of spiders. Over the next few days they spread out, one of them sneaking into Margaret’s house and killing her.

Ross gets more bad news the next day when he finds the wood in his cellar is weak and rotten. It gets worse when he goes to Margaret’s and finds her body. Although most of the town believes Metcalf’s diagnosis of a heart attack, Ross insists on an autopsy, but the Sheriff blocks him. The spiders strike again soon afterwards, killing a high school football player. Metcalf is next, bitten on the toe and dying as his wife sees the spider.

Convinced the deaths are spider-related, Ross calls the closest expert he can find, Atherton, who is skeptical until he realizes Ross is calling from the late Jerry Manley’s hometown. Atherton sends his assistant, Chris Collins (Brian McNamara) to help with the investigation, and joins himself when bites are found on all three victims. Chris manages to capture a live specimen in Margaret’s house for study. Meanwhile town exterminator Delbert McClintock (John Goodman) discovers the spiders are immune to his toxins – if not a heavy boot.

Atherton examines the captured spider and determines it’s the hybrid of the Venezuelan spider and a house spider. It has a short lifespan, but the General male no doubt has a queen hiding somewhere that will have the ability to create a new generation capable of reproduction. If they can’t destroy it before her nest hatches, Canaima will fall, then the next town, then the next. Phil, Chris and Delbert map out the attacks and realize the nest is on Ross’s property. Atherton, meanwhile, finds Molly’s photograph of the web and comes to the same conclusion. He arrives first, and is bitten and dead by the time the others arrive. Delbert finds Atherton’s body and pulls out his own “special” blend of toxins to fight the creatures.

Ross and Chris go to the house to try to get his family out. The living room is suddenly filled with thousands of deadly spiders. Everyone but Ross escapes, and he falls through the rotten floor into the cellar, where he finds the egg sac. He starts to douse the sac with wine so he can burn it, but is attacked by the original General male. He manages to burn it just as the sac starts to hatch, but it isn’t dead. Grabbing his nail gun, he fires the torched male into the egg sac, killing it and destroying the rest of them in one strike. In the end, the Jennings return to San Francisco, glad to be back in a world where events are totally under their own control… until the earthquake starts.

Thoughts: Although not remembered as well as many of the other films on this list, Arachnophobia holds a special place in my heart – it’s the first horror/comedy I remember actually seeing in theaters. (Yes, even my beloved Ghostbusters was a video find for me. I may even have seen the cartoon first before I ever saw the movie, I honestly don’t remember.) And no matter how much technology may improve the home theater experience over the years – higher resolution, more DPI (whatever that is) streaming video that also makes popcorn in a variety of flavors, whatever – there will always be an irreproducible charm in going to a theater, sitting in a darkened room with others, and absorbing a fun movie in a community experience. This was such a movie for me.

Arachnophobia falls into the more “serious,” Type-A category of horror/comedy. In fact, the first act of the film, while we’re in Venezuela, has little comedy at all, giving us a prologue that very easily could have led into a straight (albeit somewhat cheesy and overdone) traditional horror film. The comedy comes in once we get back to Canaima, and even then it’s very dry at first. Ross, depressed at only having one patient, hopes that she’ll turn out to be “ravaged by disease,” then moments later (on screen, at least) coolly denies that very wish when she turns out to be in perfect health. For much of the film, the comedy we get is well below the threshold that flips the switch and makes it a legitimate horror/comedy and not simply a lite PG-13 horror film. When that switch finally is flipped, it’s due almost entirely to the injection of the John Goodman character.

Delbert is the one wacky character in the midst of a group that doesn’t really have time to be funny. Once the real situation becomes clear, Daniels and company have to deal with thousands of very fast murderers about the size of a quarter… that’s about as serious a situation as we’ve yet seen in this horror/comedy project, and they don’t really play it for laughs. Delbert is our comic relief, an exaggerated character that borders on the cartoonish. Goodman is a fantastic actor, a wonderful comedian (with dramatic chops that are frequently overlooked), but Delbert actually takes things almost too far a few times. Part of it may simply be familiarity with John Goodman – he’s well-known enough now that it’s hard to see him play the part without just getting a very strong sense of him putting on the character. But at the same time, he’s really an odd man out in this movie. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that’s his role after all, but there are moments where he goes far enough to jolt you out of the scene.

By contrast, Jeff Daniels works well as the sort of small-town everyman (although the Ross Jennings character is, technically, a San Francisco transplant). He does, however, latch on to several stereotypes. If you’re going to do a movie where the monster is a spider, you almost have to make your hero an arachnophobe, and Frank Marshall actually takes him to the ridiculously young age of two to establish the initial childhood trauma. That scene, where he describes a spider assaulting him in the crib, is one of the funnier moments in the earlier part of the movie, in fact. He still keeps his dryness with him, even after the spiders attack. (In the climax, as he tries to pelt the male with wine bottles, he stops himself from using a particularly good vintage). But nothing he does would be funny enough to classify the movie as a comedy, in and of itself, without Goodman tipping the scales.

Director Frank Marshall is much better known for his straight comedies, but he does a decent job here conveying the horror. There are plenty of small touches that add to the horror – slow pans across spider webs and small shadows that twitch and creep … they’re all wonderful moments that will chill you nicely if you’ve got a fear of spiders already. For all the hairy legs and downright chilling movement that a spider brings with it, though, the really scary thing about this movie isn’t what the monster looks like. Most horror films rely on showing you something grotesque or mutating something mundane into an object of terror. Not so much in Arachnophobia. The hybrid spiders, for all the terror they create, don’t look that different from a traditional spider. The fear comes from the fact that these tiny killers – unlike the likes of Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers – could literally be anywhere. How often do you look under your blankets before you get into bed or peek in your shoes before you put them on? Marshall even manages to work in a twist on the old “wiggling doorknob” routine so prevalent in horror movies – in this version, it’s the swarm of spiders actually pushing through and rattling the knob in the process.

There’s a bit towards the end, while Daniels tries to battle the hiding spider in his cellar, where he’s looking around frantically for a monster that is utterly invisible. It brings to mind every time you’ve ever walked into a spiderweb and started flailing madly, looking like a lunatic to anybody who happens to see you. That’s a really funny moment, when it happens to someone else. But that moment encapsulates the whole movie. In the world Marshall creates, every miniscule nook and cranny of every room could be hiding grim death for anyone unlucky enough to encounter it at the wrong time. If you’re not scared of spiders, that thought could be enough to drive the fear into you.