Tag Archives: Paranormal Activity

Disaster of the Year — “The Pyramid”

Pyramid how not to excavate a pyramid

by Gabriel Valdez

The Pyramid is a calamity of rare proportions. Sure, more expensive films have become greater disappointments because of the expectations we place in them. A largely point-of view horror movie, The Pyramid neither cost much to make nor had any expectations that it would be good. Yet very few movies so creatively find new ways to fail every 10 minutes.

The Pyramid is a pioneer into the depths of terrible – not simply content with mere badness, it keeps on discovering fresh ways to make you scratch your head and ask, “Really?” If it had slightly better intentions, I’d be tempted to place it in the Ed Wood Memorial Pantheon of movies that are so bad they’re good.

The premise is simple: a team of archaeologists and documentary filmmakers descend into an ancient pyramid to face cannibal zombie cats, an angry Egyptian god, kinda deadly traps, and most terrifying of all: a room full of the cannibal zombie cats’ droppings. But wait! There’s more:

Before making this movie, no one seems to have researched anything about archaeology (or medicine, or scriptwriting, or holding a camera, for that matter). Each character will whine at the others incessantly, only taking breaks to roll their eyes knowingly at the camera. This is annoying but acceptable – most of The Pyramid is found footage. The audience pretends this is real footage discovered later a la The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity.

Pyramid awfully bright in this pyramid

Director Gregory Levasseur forgets his genre at hilariously random moments, switching between characters’ points of view and an omniscient cinematographer without reason or warning. The most crucial aspect of POV movies is to establish a rhythm with the audience that indicates to us whose perspective we’re viewing, even during frenetic action sequences that cut back and forth quickly. It’s a cinematic geography formed through staging and editing.

It’s not that there’s no rhythm in The Pyramid, it’s that there’s not even any awareness that there should be. I was often unsure of characters’ interactions during action scenes and that omniscient cinematographer pops up so frequently that you’ll repeatedly mistake it for a real character’s perspective. Levasseur’s is a ridiculous failure in understanding the basics of the genre in which he’s directing.

In terms of story, this is a cast that features no leaders, people with courage, or intelligence. I’m prepared for people to make stupid decisions in horror movies – sometimes that’s half the fun – but The Pyramid takes the phrase “stupid decision” as a challenge.

I briefly began wondering if the film realized how bad it was when it started delivering dialogue like, “Stop being an archaeologist and be a human being for once,” and “Robot guy just got killed by something we can’t identify!” There’s some choice cheese in here, but a series of increasingly tedious and inexplicable climaxes quickly dull any sense of fun that threatens to creep in. The ending is so bad, I wondered if the film was simply trolling its audience by trying to be the worst found footage movie it could be.

Pyramid these hieroglyphs say our art director failed to google hieroglyphs

Compare The Pyramid to an underrated POV gem from earlier in the year: As Above, So Below. The earlier film boasted intelligent characters, including a fantastic leader. When things went wrong, they would slow the situation down and take stock of it. Injuries warranted field medicine and new strategies to accommodate the wounded. Impossible situations required puzzle solving and teamwork. To them, hopelessness and panic became as dangerous an enemy as anything lurking in the shadows. This situational give-and-take created a captivating one step forward, two steps back narrative that’s key to horror. It also gave me characters I was excited to cinematically follow into danger.

With the team of whining buffoons in The Pyramid, I was just rooting for the cannibal zombie cats to eat them already. Seriously, those cats looked pretty underfed. The deadly traps are only deadly because our heroes are complete imbeciles and “tragically” bump each other into them. The most terrifying thing about the angry Egyptian god is his cheap CGI – always opt for make-up effects when making budget horror. If you’re not predicting every jump scare to the millisecond by the time you’re halfway through The Pyramid, then you’ve never seen a horror movie before.

Some outlets request I give movies I review a score. I keep those off this site because I don’t think scores are useful shortcuts to judging art, but I gave The Pyramid half a star out of four, which is like giving it points for writing its name correctly at the top of the test. It’s terrible. Go rent As Above, So Below, or sit down with a more classic horror movie instead. (Here’s what we chose as Our Favorite Horrors back on Halloween.)

Personally, I break out John Carpenter’s The Thing every Winter to get in the proper freezing out of my mind spirit.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does The Pyramid have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Ashley Hinshaw plays Nora, the daughter of the lead archeologist and an archeologist herself. Christa Nicola plays the documentary’s director and narrator.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes.

Horror may be the only genre in which it’s very difficult to not pass the Bechdel Test. As a genre, it seems to involve multiple women as main characters at a higher rate than any other. This isn’t always for the most noble reasons – horror movies need a number of characters so that many of them can be picked off over the course of a film. But the Bechdel Test isn’t about being noble, it’s about treating women like everyone else in the film, whatever that may entail.

There are, essentially, three main male characters, two main female characters, one supporting male character, and a buncha cannibal zombie cats. The Pyramid does include a brief lingerie scene for one of its female leads, so it’s momentarily exploitative without being equal opportunity about it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a cheesecake scene, but if you’re going to put one in, I’m sure a lot of women (and men) wouldn’t have minded Amir K with his shirt off.

That said, The Pyramid could have just included the women as monster fodder. Instead, it puts them in positions of professional power and expertise. That power and expertise may not be well written, but it’s not well written for the men either. The Pyramid deserves some credit for exposing every character to its awfulness equally.

A POV Standout — “As Above, So Below”

As Above So Below 1

Mainstream critics tend to miss the boat when it comes to found footage movies, and they’ve done it again with As Above, So Below.

You can’t really blame them. Found footage (or POV horror) is a genre that requires victims of a horror movie to tote around cameras while running for their lives. You see everything from their point-of-view and some noble (or perverse) soul presumably cuts all of the footage together later on. The most famous example is, of course, The Blair Witch Project, although the Paranormal Activity franchise has become a low-budget juggernaut. And that’s the problem – for every good found footage movie, there are at least a half dozen bad ones.

Critics also aren’t trained to watch them with the analytical eye they would more cinematic narratives, and those born before music videos redefined the entire film industry in the 80s and 90s may not prize the genre’s best tool – aggressive jump-cut editing – as highly as those born after.

So you can’t blame the critical community, but you can call them out when they miss on a gem like As Above, So Below.

As Above So Below lead

The strength of the film is Perdita Weeks, playing urban archaeologist Scarlett Marlowe. Her character’s a clear nod toward franchises like Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider. She’s introduced sneaking into an Iranian tomb that’s minutes from being blown up, searching for the Rose Key. This will allow her to translate the words on a gravestone back in Paris. Believing the mythical Philosopher’s Stone is hidden in the Paris catacombs, a warren of graves which stretch for miles below the city, she recruits a less-than-ideal team of cameraman, translator, and urban spelunkers. It’s a wing-ding of a plot, but no moreso than the kind we normally heap on Nicolas Cage, Harrison Ford, or Tom Hanks.

Like the ladykillers I just mentioned, Scarlett also has a roguelike history of using her charm to get others to risk their lives with her, and isn’t above leaving an ally in a Turkish jail if it gets her closer to a historical truth. Her infectious curiosity also makes the suspension of disbelief easier, even when her team discovers the gates of Hell buried beneath Paris.

She also brings an unabashedly British brand of cheer and determination rarely seen in horror movies. Climbing through a tunnel full of loose bones, she turns around to reassure her hyperventilating cameraman, “It’s really not too bad.” When terrifying sounds travel down a dusty corridor and her team cowers, she marches straight at the fresh terror with a resounding, “[Bleep] that, I’m going.” The horror genre as a whole has developed a bad habit of casting victims – no leaders. Scarlett is a refreshingly complete leader in a genre typically based around victims cowering into their cameras.

As Above, So Below does cheat a little. We see from every camera’s perspective, even those strapped to characters later lost to Hell. I don’t think the presumed editor of this all said to himself later on, “I’m going to run down to Hell real quick to grab the rest of the footage.” There’s also a much stronger editing hand than you typically see in found footage movies, especially as the scares ramp up. These cinematic cheats begin to make the movie a bit of a genre mash-up – it uses the techniques of found footage, but by the end, it’s really more concerned with being a movie than in creating a faux sense of “this really happened.”

As Above So Below cap

There’s one more thing to like about the film – its pervasive sense of dread. There are jump scares here, but they aren’t as numerous as you’d suspect. The movie’s focus on rhythm, pace, and behind-the-scenes choreography lets those jump scares shine. I’m not a jumper, but this one had me going.

The film does break down a little toward the end, compiling too much action into too short a time – nearly all found footage films suffer from balancing the action of a climax without breaking the pseudo-reality they’ve established before. As Above, So Below has a clever ending, but it’s a 93-minute movie. Another 10 minutes to maintain the pace established earlier could have improved things.

It’s my favorite horror movie this year, and the best since last year’s You’re Next. It’s not exactly a cinematic triumph, and it’s ridiculous around the edges – I mean, read that plot again – but it’s very effective, and that’s what matters. If you don’t like POV horror, this won’t convert you, and if it makes you nauseous, the camerawork here is some of the shakiest around. If you are a genre fan, however, this is a very solid film in a year starved for good horror.

As Above, So Below is rated R for violence, terror, and language.

Fast Food Horror — “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones”

The Marked Ones 3

I’m not a fan of the Paranormal Activity series of movies, in which overprotective husbands place constantly recording cameras in every corner of their houses (is this something that anyone does?) for no other apparent reason than one day an audience might want to peep in. Inevitably, their wife or daughter is revealed to be possessed and horror hijinks ensue.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones takes the cameras out of the home and puts them in the hands of a pair of high school graduates. There’s a sense of place and character its forebears lacked. Even when the horror starts, best friends Jesse and Hector are more interested in drinking and hooking up with women than in figuring out any mystery. So what if being possessed gives me demon strength and a strange force stops me from being able to hurt myself? Let’s go show it off! The sense of skewed priorities does a lot to shape the characters.

As happens in these films, the handsome one gets possessed, the funny best friend stays by his side to make the audience smile, and the beautiful girl whose job it is to wring her hands and look worried does exactly this. There are a few blurts of plot, but they’re quickly abandoned. The film assumes you’ve seen a demonic possession movie before, so you know the beats of the plot.

The Marked Ones 1

The Marked Ones is point-of-view (POV), filmed through Jesse’s camera. This means we have to see enough of everything that we can tell what’s going on, but that the actors have to act more “real” and less dramatically. This demands a couple of concessions. When Jesse is mugged, for instance, Hector tries to help while still holding the camera squarely on his best friend getting beaten. When I’m being attacked, my first instinct is to defend myself with the biggest, hardest thing I can find – which, in this case, would be the camera. A blur of sidewalk and a burst of motion sickness don’t make for a good shot, however. In moments like these – desperately trying to pull a plank off a window with only one hand because your life isn’t as important as making sure the camera’s capturing it – the film’s reality breaks. Other POV films are smart enough to direct around these situations.

POV films also have trouble with climaxes. In action and horror movies, we expect larger-than-life endings – bigger explosions and jumpier scares. When you take things that extra mile in a POV film, however, bigger and jumpier often translates to inauthentic. There’s a higher suspension of disbelief to overcome because we’re asked to adopt the story’s visual perspective as our own. It’s a fine line to walk, and The Marked Ones has some very cheesy action.

That’s what’s wrong. What’s right is that director Christopher Landon uses his nonexistent budget to his advantage. The scariest sequences are those in which we see nothing, waiting to discover what’s around the next corner, past that sheet of plastic or on the other side of a dark room. It gives our imaginations time to dream up horrors far more shocking than what’s eventually delivered. Little things, like effectively spare art direction and clever sound design that plays with white noise, do a lot to make the quieter moments the scariest. The ending is bravely abrupt and a smart piece of fan service to those who’ve seen the rest of the franchise, though it may leave some wanting more of a conclusion.

I also applaud The Marked Ones for featuring an almost all-Latino cast. I particularly enjoyed the feisty grandmother who, once she discovers her grandson is possessed, decides this thing’s getting exorcised pronto. I have a feisty abuelita who lives in San Antonio, and I pity any demon that thinks it can go toe-to-toe with her.

The Marked Ones 4

Is The Marked Ones good? Not really. It doesn’t come close to the best of the POV horror genre: [Rec], Cloverfield, and the underrated The Last Exorcism. Is it scary and fun? Sure. It’s fast food horror – it hits the spot and satisfies a certain craving. It’s no turkey dinner, though. There are some effective scares and interesting enough characters, which will all be forgotten a half-hour after you walk out of the theater. The Marked Ones is rated R for language, violence, nudity, and drug use. This is no family film.