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Slipping grades
A UK region 2 DVD review of PARANORMAL INCIDENT by Gort
 
"Somebody has to document this!"
Student Tess provides the usual reason
to keep filming when no-one really would

 

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. A group of college students decide that in order to get an A grade in something-or-other, they will prove or disprove the existence of the paranormal. How do they plan to accomplish this monumental task, one that has eluded the finest minds since the age of enlightenment? Why they're going to spend the night in an abandoned and supposedly haunted sanatorium with a shitload of camcorders. If they get something on tape then ghosts really exist and if they don't then it's all superstition and bunkum. Yeah, that should do it.

As a group, they hit the expected demographic. There's lively sceptic Samantha, who is convinced they'll find nothing but in no time at all is trying to prompt a ghost to respond to her questions. On the other side of the faith fence there's Latina-esque Tess, a confirmed believer who is best friends with John, who drops the group off and then padlocks the exit, apparently as a gag. He's SO funny, this guy. Undecided either way is the upbeat Danny, the token black face and the nearest this group has to a likeable member. There's tech-head John, who slides into the background so quickly that I forgot was in the film, and rounding things off is bubblehead Blake and her superjock boyfriend Brennan, a self-centred dumbass who's recording the trip on the very same tape he used to film a recent sexual infidelity. When shooting he cleverly leaves enough gaps between the shots to allow Blake to discover the X-rated material and storm off at the very point she shouldn't go wandering alone in the dark.

Despite being still rather fond of the whole found footage sub-genre, I have to admit that by adhering so slavishly to its codes and conventions, it's starting to get stuck in a rut of its own making. Certain things are a given with this particular strand of horror, including the certainty that all of the main characters will be dead by the end. Yeah, I know, it's all about the journey, but it would be nice just once to fret about who might survive instead of wondering idly when and how they will be dispatched.

Paranormal Incident (limp, I know, but in the copycat title catalogue, Paranormal Investigations and Paranormal Entity were already taken) throws an early spanner in the genre works with a conventionally shot opening scene in which the sole survivor of the sanatorium massacre – the above-mentioned John, that comical bastard who locked his friends in – wakes up in hospital to be confronted by Rebecca, who looks like a sympathetic but cheerless librarian. The police think it was John who killed all his friends and Rebecca's here to help. It's hard to be sure how. John knows he didn't do it but can't recall a thing about the whole affair. So how does he...? Oh, never mind. To help jog his memory, the police have recovered all of the students' footage, plus some CCTV stuff from a system that's been deactivated for years and a few shots that seem to have been taken by ghosts, and edited them all into a movie for him to peruse. They've even added a music track so he knows just when to get scared or excited. Frankly I wouldn't get your hopes up for either.

As a storytelling strategy, this darting between the found footage and the drearily shot drama does the former no favours. While it does allow director and co-writer Matthew Bolton to fill in some expositional gaps that would have been better handled by well-written dialogue, it also interrupts any attempt to build tension by repeatedly removing us from the location in which his victims are trapped. Not that this matters. As found footage goes, the material here is dispiritingly naff. Early encounters with the incumbent forces consist largely of night vision shots of paired-up students exploring dark corridors, where they are startled by loud bangs and scream "WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?", the same hoary old trick that TV tosh like Most Haunted has been trading on for years. It doesn't really help that the students themselves are even more tiresome than the genre norm. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Brennan emerges as king of the dickwads, and while we're clearly expected to bond with survivor John, he's simply too dull and is not really equipped to deliver lines like "All this time...all this time and I was afraid to tell her...and to lose her as a friend...and she felt the same way the whole time!" without sounding like a drip of the highest order.

The usual complaints about frenetic camerawork aside, this is a technically shabby show. The soundtrack is the principal offender here, afflicted as it is by some stark shifts in volume and clarity, sometimes within the same scene. And I'm talking about the hospital sequences here, the only ones that have no real excuse for such quality variance. The sound of approaching footsteps is almost lost in some variable background hiss and a digitally recorded spectral voice (it apparently only records on digital – the analogue years must have been tough for these ghosts) sounds exactly how it would if I asked you to say something in the manner of a spooky spirit. And if you're going to add the sound effect of someone typing on a desktop computer keyboard, make sure its not over the image of them sliding their finger across a laptop trackpad.

The visuals are no great shakes either, a real shame given the potential of the location, whose wide communal halls and gloomy corridors cry out for a more inventive and sympathetic eye. Least convincing of all is the 16mm film the group discover of a past patient interview (which Sam amusingly thinks is a video), as comically artificial and staged a slice of would-be documentary as you'll see all year. And since the group is reliant on torches and camcorders to find their way around, how exactly did they manage to power the projector?

Paranormal Incident is a film with few friends, reflected in its woeful IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes user scores, though it has to be said that a few of the logic holes are excused by an ending that might actually have impressed had I cared a hoot for these toe-rags by then. But for all that it gets wrong, the film does still pull off a quietly delicious frisson when a sleeping Sam's hair is gently ruffled by an invisible hand, an image more genuinely creepy than all of the banging, running and screaming that surrounds it.

sound and vision

You won't be surprised to learn that Paranormal Incident is shot largely on HD camcorders and that it looks that way, which is only appropriate. Within those confines the picture is decently rendered – detail is rather good, contrast is crisp and the colours near to natural. The night vision footage is inevitable drained of colour but still clear enough, while the surveillance material has been treated in post to look less well defined. The variances in image quality on the student shot footage accurately reflect the range of cameras they use. Oddly enough it's the hospital footage, which should theoretically look the best, that feels the grubbiest.

The Dolby stereo 2.0 track is a victim of the original sound mix, whose sometimes wild variances in quality and volume and occasional distortions are clearly evident here.

extra features

All we have here is a Trailer (0:56), and even that is unimaginatively recycled from previous found footage trailers.

summary

A slapdash collection of well-worn found footage motifs that for the most part justifies its poor reputation. By messing with the formula – a theoretically laudable ambition in itself – and populating the film with annoying dullards, it succeeds in buggering up the very thing that gives the genre its gradually fading appeal. That the disc arrives without anything substantial in the way of extra features seems only appropriate.

Paranormal Incident

USA 2011
82 mins
director
Matthew Bolton
producers
Matthew Bolton
Rob Filson
Chris W. Freeman
Justin Jones
screenplay
Matthew Bolton
Chris W. Freeman
cinematography
Lincoln Lewis
editing
Ashley Seivwright
music
Alexander Bornstein
production design
Luke Casey
starring
Amanda Barton
Brett Edwards
Oliver Rayon
Derrick Scott
Nadia Underwood
Sabrina Villalobos
Chelsea Vincent

disc details
region 2
video
1.77:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Trailer
distributor
Arrow
release date
23 July 2012
review posted
31 July 2012

See all of Gort's reviews