Voodoo and witchcraft-related horror films often simmer with a whole gris-gris bag of subtext: gender, race, and psychology all percolating under a boilerplate plot and how much of it we detect depending on our own cultural and educational situation. As our nation/world gets collectively more sensitized, not noticing the drip over spilling out of that pot seems hard. We can't not roll our eyes as yet again a white man lands on a voodoo island for gold or research or to investigate shipwreck and a cute young half-caste (or white, but made up in bronzer to look dimly ethnic) woman from the village betrays the gods to be with him; they escape in a boat as the island erupts in flames and all the black monsters die except the grinning ferryman who is innocent in his naivete, who spirits them away where they can breed and uphold the status quo and in later years, the now retired white dude can go "Voodoo? Harumph!" when the kids ask him about it.
As for the woman, it's tricky but with a recipe set in Hollywood stone: if she's actually white (usually her parents were missionaries or crashed in a plane) they're happy ever after (though maybe she still uses some voodoo in the kitchen, ala Burn Witch Burn). If she's not 100% white, she must die to save him, and thus appease the gods/censors). If she does live, you must imagine Carl Denham lecturing at a feminist studies group: "She was a queen in her jungle world, but she threw it all away to follow a handsome stranger home to to his own lands, and here she is, barefoot and pregnant, for your own amusement!"
In a very few films however, someone clearly takes a stand against these tired/true rules, such as in the consciously progressive, often forgotten voodoo film from Columbia, BLACK MOON (1934). With its mix of horror-action and white man's burden-coded proto-feminism it just may be the least racist and sexist of all 1930s racist-sexist zombie movies --a kind of pre-Lewton Lewton where women understand the supernatural realms instinctively while the half asleep men try to keep it all buried via tactics like condescension, humiliation, beatings, and threats --none of which work a damn-- until the status quo boundaries have shrunk to noose size.
Keeping with the subjugation motif, Fay Wray gets second billing in MOON but is the most recognized name, having tangled with Kong on Skull Island the year before. However, on this particular forgotten island the white power over the ebony denizens is long established, thanks to a racist French sugar cane plantation owner (Arnold Korff). His young niece (Dorothy Burgess) left the island years ago for New York City and now wants to come visit. He doesn't want her to, lest it excite the natives. Living there as a kid, she apparently did some serious mystic bonding with the locals and now the drums are calling her to return, return, with her own young daughter in tow.
The voodoo scenes turn out to be surprisingly respectful of the tradition - and the drumming and singing is awesome, with day-for-night shots of glistening black bodies drumming and dancing, old wizened faces staring off into the distance, and lots of white plantation garb that may be more true to the mileu but lacks the exoticism wer'e hoping for. There's no 'real' night in these scenes, no Anton Grot or William Menzies-type set design to bring it all into a rarefied realm. And it's slow going in spots, and very odd. It never seems sure where it wants to go, only where it doesn't. They even bring in the under-sung Clarence Muse (see my ode to him here) as the charter boat captain who takes old Jack Holt to the island (he wants to make sure his girl is all right). Muse is worried about his own girl, a local who's become much too mixed up with the voodoo scene. The form a kind of interesting bond of equals, not unlike Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier in Paris Blues, just two normal American guys wondering what's got into their women. There's no nonsense like there would be if their characters were played by Willie Best and Bob Hope, for example, though they werent' too bad in and of itself compared to other teams.
But while it's applaudable on these levels, and it is spooky right from the opening with servants in the voodoo lady's New York City apartment, shuddering at the sound of Dorothy Burgess teaching her infant daughter to play voodoo drums, it never lasts: a strange man who works for the colonialist uncle shows up with the message he doesn't want Burgess to go to the island--the natives are too agitated. She says buzz off, and then he's killed on his way to see the husband to try and get him to nail her fins to de floor, so to speak. What's cool is we want her to go to the island, so the native skulkers are killing the messenger for our benefit. Thus, the natives are clearly the good guys up to a point, as we bristle at the idea these scowling white dudes are going to decide where Dorothy Burgess can and can't go.
But in the end of course they are right.
Aren't they always?
Lacking any kind of central figure to care about, aside from Wray and Muse (both minor figures in the film) makes the film a little too reliant on atmosphere and expectation. The ominousness builds up for the big ceremony but it's so 'respectful' when it comes it's a bit of an anticlimax. The kid's maid is killed early on when she keeps objecting to the child being given things like knives and voodoo dolls to play with, but we don't see the murder or even the body. Why? This is a horror movie, after all. Wray wires for Holt to come and take them home but the wire operator is killed before he can send it. At least we get to see the explosion.
Even so, we side with the voodoo crowd because we're waiting for something genuinely 'bad' to happen. They keep talking it up, until it can't possibly match our expectation. But we do like Holt's relationship with his little daughter. They have a genuine bond and he's not a simpering sort like dads in films today, but a rough and ready 70s dad type and she loves him for it.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 shares a lot of BLACK MOON's deep subtextual feminism. Here the dad is a self-satisfied liberal authoritarian pretending to be fun, hip, gentle family man but he scoffs at the supernatural while his wife and maid know better, which only makes him resentful and furious, forbidding any mention of supernatural goings-on in his presence, even firing the maid for daring to light incense in the house. What a dick!
Like its forerunner, PA2 was a huge hit in theaters, and like BLACK MOON has a great, prolonged set-up with only mild yield: the initial ghost attack looks enough like an ordinary break-in that it compels dad to install security cameras and as our subjects sleep through the night these security cam images--a ghostly lit pool with the cleaner snake slithering around the surface; the crib room with the German shepherd guardian (the dog's not much for supernatural detection, surprisingly; the big petit bourgeois living room--take on a creepy life of their own as our eyes nervously scour the banality in search of some uncanny element or movement. Andre Bazin would surely approve!
One reason the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY films work as instant pop culture artifacts is their William Castle-ish utilitarianism - they are here to provide bonding moments of shock in the cinema on Saturday night, or to creep out couples on their couches, couples similar to the couples depicted. And that is all - they are obviously super cheap to make, and make far more than their more expensive competitors. But what they show is something new--the modern American family to itself as it really is, revealing the awful difference between how 'scary' we look on video vs. the pretty people we see in the mirror. The dad thinks he's a hilarious righteous sex machine but we see he's an asshole, etc. and then, watching himself on screen, so does he. These people are the American family that the sitcoms and TV want to portray, but don't have enough time. All the corpses the screenwriters can dredge up in the family garden pale in comparison to the unstoppable demonic ghost possession in the real time found footage usually edited out of TV shows. For eight hours or so every night most of us are in a sate of total unconsciousness. Who knows what's going on while we're asleep? It's creepy. That's what got us hooked in the first place with the first PA - a possessed sleeping girl standing motionless over her sleeping husband... hour after hour.
It's important in each example here that the endangered family be upper-middle class as success makes the dad 'dependent' on the prevailing reality and culture. He's got something to lose. He knows hungry young bucks are eyeing his spot. A white trash redneck sleeping in his pick-up truck has nothing to lose by embracing new paradigms and is thus way more likely to be down with the supernatural. But in the American upper middle class' unconscious, the uncanny is ghettoized so deep that when dad finally sees the tape and learns the truth he becomes a fractured, incoherent mess, worse than useless and ripe for possession. If such a possession was offered he'd snap at it, a chance to switch sides and affix his star to whatever's currently in charge, whatever overpowering force wants to supply the new paradigm, no matter, as long as he can still feel smug.
Just as BLACK MOON is not just about race oppression but gender oppression, each one a metaphor for the other, so too the PARANORMAL films are about superstition and rational thinking kicking each other into oblivion. When the rational left-brained know-it-all douche bag dad types are forced to confront the truth, forced to realize via the very rationalist tools of the skeptic-- security cameras-- that they can never completely protect their children, even in their own house--that their kids will always be exposed to danger, then not even the TV set can provide a respite, then dad is drained of all his false entitlement. And if he denies he ever even had any, his double negative shoots him in his own foot through his mouth.
Such a realization of complete powerlessness is the apocalypse of the American family and its one salvation. One thinks back to the "they're here" moment in POLTERGEIST, and if you compare the downward spiral from level-headedness to powerless tired mess of Craig T. Nelson as the dad in that film vs. the gone-to-pieces dad in PA2, all you can do is weep for the incredible dissolving father. The ghosts came through the TV static in that 1980 pre-cable film (when white noise static and station sign-offs still existed), but the PA films are made on and with digital --there is no more four AM shot of an American flag to signal the end of another broadcast day, no chance for static to sneak through and speak to us in its crackly 'popcorn' white noise languge. We have 900 channels of cable and it never, ever sleeps. It's not just ghosts we shut out, it's everything. All hail Shark Vacuum!