Friday, November 9, 2012

FEATURE: LoEB ''Jumping The Shark''

After a brief hiatus, The League has been called back into action!

This week's assignment comes from League creator and coordinator Brian at Cool and Collected, who posed this simple question:

At what point did a pop culture series “jump the shark” and lose your interest?

Well my pretties, read on and we'll find out....

''Jump The Shark?''
'To ''jump the shark'' is a term used by movie, TV and nerdy people to mark the point at which a show, movie series or other story-led franchise has pretty much mined every possible concept or scenario and so begins to look outside of its usual bounds for new material, which normally results in outrageous or unbelievable new concepts, characters or ideas being introduced simply to keep the show going. Typical examples include characters being killed-off only to be later re-introduced as having miraculously survived, comedy shows that introduce aliens/wacky long-lost relatives/new kids to keep the show ''fresh'' and shows where mysterious, stand-alone moments of weirdness must be retconned into a single, simple mythology because the fanbase has complained about it. In many cases it's simply the producers compromising their original vision to pander to the audience's likes or demands and, as a result, the franchise always suffers.

The actual origin comes from an episode of Happy Days, the 1950s-set coming of age/nostalgia trip comedy-but-hey-kids-there's-a-message-here-too-drama, in which The Fonz really did perform a water ski jump over a shark because... well, it was the sort of thing the audience would think was awesome. Or at least, that's what the show's producers thought...

So now we've cleared that up, here's my contribution...

Paranormal Activity
Before I explain how Paranormal Activity jumped the shark (and when and why) I want to take a moment to explain my stance. I love a good horror movie. I've been watching scary movies for as long as I can remember (my formative weekend nights were spent tucked-up in bed watching double-bills of Hammer or Universal movies on a 15'' black and white portable TV) and I can't even begin to count how many horror movies I've seen but chances are if you name a flick I'll have seen it.

One of the big reasons I'm such a horror buff is that, unlike many other genres, there are so many possibilities to create new stories, to say something interesting and to introduce new scenarios, characters and concepts. There are few genres that are so flexible yet familiar as the horror genre and for me the scares are a secondary pleasure, the extra little bit of spooky icing on a delicious cake of imagination.

A spooky cake, yesterday

It saddens me then to see how formulaic the horror genre has become over the last decade. Hollywood has always been about making money (and that's fine, as it's a business) but in too many cases movies are churned out simply to make a profit, with no intention of even caring what the audience thinks or wants. Once you've paid your $8 and you're sitting in the theater, they don't care whether you enjoy it or not because at that point, their goal of parting you from your money has been achieved.

It's always refreshing then to see a low-budget or indie horror movie that doesn't play by Hollywood's rules. With the advent of services like Netflix, the Internet and cable TV programming's voracious appetite for content the producers of such ''small'' movies have a conduit that allows them to get their work to its audience. Now just to make myself clear I'm not saying that all big budget movies are bad and all low budget indie movies are good. There's some fantastic work - and some stinkers - in both camps. But generally indie movies are usually made without the influence of a demographics study group or shaped by trends as seen by corporate investors, meaning that they're usually fresher and are also forced to be more creative to not only stand out but also make the most of their meager budget. So when a new ''must-see'' indie flick comes along, you know I'm going to be the first in line to see it.

Paranormal Activity was one such movie. Filmed in the producer's own home and shot with the kind of equipment you could go out and buy for yourself (as many movies now are, post-Blair Witch Project) there was a genuine sense of creepiness to the movie, a documentary-level of reality that really got under the skin of the audience. People would claim it was boring, that nothing happened or that it was just people sleeping and stuff, but that was the point. The movie was created to disturb by poking at the boundaries of our reality but never overstepping the mark to burst the bubble of the restrained, carefully-crafted atmosphere of the possible. It worked because we all sleep and many of us have experienced nocturnal disturbances or even had encounters with somnambulists.This is the sort of thing that could happen to you. And that's a scary thought.

Now here's the thing: Paranormal Activity isn't actually a particularly good movie. But what it is is effective. It does what it's supposed to do - disturb the audience with a feeling of unease - very well, even if it's sometimes a little cheap at times. But for all its early faults it manages to captivate, draw-in and hold the audience though the use of atmosphere, a slow build-up and the sense that what's happening could - with a little imagination - be real.

So why then did the producers jump the shark with such an out-of-step ending? Because they made the fatal mistake of conforming to audience expectation. Audiences want everything wrapped-up and closed (although not so tightly as to make a sequel impossible) and an ending that's too open-ended or that doesn't answer their questions makes the average moviegoer angry. Now don't get me wrong I'm not saying 90% of movie audiences are stupid but... well, they are.

Having sat through 90 minutes of restrained scares and creepy-yet-almost-plausible happenings the writers decided it was time to end it all with a bang. Or three bangs. That's right: they filmed three endings, a sure sign that they really didn't know at this point what to do with their movie.

To make matters worse the studios stepped in after the first release and have taken control of the now-franchise to produce another three movies, all of which expand the ''mythology'' to introduce elements not seen in the original but also elements beyond the realm of the possible to such a degree that Paranormal Activity 5 may as well feature armies of dragons battling unicorns for two hours.

I'm not a movie maker. I've never claimed to be. But what I am is a savvy viewer and I think that at least qualifies me to know what I like. So for me, it would have been much more effective, much scarier and just how, well, better had the movie's events reached the point of Katie and Micah experiencing nocturnal noises, slamming doors or other ''possible'' paranormal events that come to a head with a night of increased activity before simply ending with a card that read:

Following this last series of events Micah and Katie have moved house. 

To this day they still experience unexplained phenomena.

It's plausible. It's creepy. And it's also way more disturbing than the boo-scare we get as pay-off at the end. But no, instead we have some ongoing nonsense about witch covens, Satanic pacts and a sub-Sadako rampaging Auntie of Evil lusting after virgin sacrifices for reasons that remain unclear. Until of course, Paranormal Activity 5 comes along and explains it all for us.



  1. I've never bothered to watch any of the Paranormal Activities beyond Part 2, and now I'm confident it was a wise decision (although armies of dragons battling unicorns is something I'd pay money to see). You're dead on about that first film being effective even though it's not exactly what you'd call a good movie. It was one of the most fun/scary nights I've ever had watching a movie. It's such a shame what happens to successful indie movies. They get run through the Hollywood machine and come out a tainted franchise, memorable only for the original that spawned a series of mediocre cash-grab sequels.

    1. We watched Part 3 solely out of morbid curiosity (and for the IMDb movie challenge) and although it had some surprisingly effective, slow-burn, creepy scenes but for whatever reason they decided to fill out the ''mythology'' by adding an utterly ridiculous back story.

      BTW, the Red Letter Media/Half in the Bag review of PA 4 is completely spot-on and hilarious, worth watching if only for Mike's ''Tour of Rich White People's Houses'' ride.

  2. I second the RLM review... "Let's cut off mid conversation to make it more 'real'"..."ummm...who is editing this 'found footage'?"

    I think the whole found footage principle is a jump the shark one at that...look at "the devil inside" or "the last exorcism" which are just that. Good post, dude.

    1. Yeah, it's always an oddity. At least with The Blair Witch Project they tried to frame it as ''found footage,'' something most ''found footage'' movies seem to forget to do.

      And yeah, I'm not a fan of the genre myself. It's a very played-out idea now.

  3. This is spot on. The first one struck such a realistic scare (for the most part) and really left me pretty spooked, it was great! Then...I watched the next two and well, I was more sad than scared.

    1. What really gets me is that it had so much potential. But instead of exercising (or exorcising?) some restraint and steering toward a kind of ''almost within the realms of the possible'' scenario we end up with cheap, very obvious BOO SCARY LOOK AT ME I'M A MONSTER! ''scares.''


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