In reading some of the early reviews for the newly released Quarantine, I find myself getting really irritated with critics. Even though I sort of want the film to suck, to prove my point that originals, even foreign originals with subtitles, are always better than the remakes, I take issue with this notion that the faux-documentary technique is a recently minted and sure-to-be-short-lived gimmick that immediately condemns a film to the slag heap. To claim as much is to display a real ignorance of not only the horror genre but the whole history of escapist storytelling. Using a shaky hand-held camera is just one more iteration of an ancient trope that says, "What I am about to tell you really happened." It's no different than Stephen King using fake news clippings to give Carrie, his first novel, the weight of truth. It's no different than Bram Stoker using letters and diary entries to ground his Victorian melodrama (Dracula). But here is where the critics miss the point: Are such techniques an attempt to actually convince you? No. Not unless you're five years old and gullible. What they do is draw a dividing line between the world of reality and the world of the story, and make explicit the pact between storyteller and audience: lend me your ear and suspend your disbelief; in return I will tell you a tall tale that will entertain, thrill, frighten, and maybe even change you. Those who cannot fulfill their end of the bargain have no business sitting down at the campfire in the first place.
I distinctly remember standing in line at a theater in Berkeley, waiting to see the premiere of The Blair Witch Project, and evesdropping as a nearby woman and her daughter whipped themselves into a pique of nervous anticipation. It was clear that neither of them actually believed what they were about to watch was a true story, but the closer they got to a place where it could be true, the more they would enjoy it.
Here's the thing: I grew up and went to school with Heather Donahue, the female lead in Blair Witch. I watched her in school plays and knew she had gone out West to become an actress. Even with that knowledge, I was still able to sit down in that packed theater house and believe, if only for a short while, that something had stalked her and her companions in the woods of Burkittsville. Credit the filmmakers, credit Heather, and credit my sharing of Fox Mulder's motto: I want to believe. Whatever the case, the film worked for me.
I sat down last night to watch Blair Witch again for the first time since that night, nearly ten years ago. I was exhausted, and really wanted to watch the Phillies game. I took several breaks to get beers and cookies. I did not watch it in total darkness, as I had the other selections. In short, I failed to fulfill my end of the bargain, and as a result nary a goosebump was raised. Even the final scene fell flat for me, no pun intended.
I hope there's a lesson in here somewhere. For me, if not for others. Old Timothy Leary was not just talking about psychedelics when he underlined the importance of set and setting...
To be fair, I'm going to score Blair Witch based on my first viewing.
Scorecard (out of ten skulls):
My psychological status:
guilty as charged