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On Paranorman

August 20, 2012

Horror and I have a complicated relationship. I love the webbed, ridiculous mythos that horror of the Resident Evil vein generates, and I love the unexpectable badness of films like Manos: The Hands of Fate, but real horror terrifies me. That’s the point, but it’s not what I particularly want out of a film.

Paranorman, the newest film from Coraline creators Laika, taps into this appreciation of old horror-comedy. It has many of the things I love about horror films—the ludicrous contrivances (never played quite straight), the archetypical characters, the heavily referential nature—combined with the things I love about children’s films—the silliness, the archetypical side characters—and makes from them an amusing whole.

Paranorman is the story of Norman, a kid who can see ghosts, who “accepts” a quest from his recently deceased John Goodman voiced, John Goodmanesque uncle to speak a verse at a witch’s gravesite to keep the dead at rest. Along the way he, in true children’s film fashion, learns lessons about friendship, family, and being an oddball; the filmmakers use these lessons as a chance to reference classic horror films, geek culture, and other things odd enough for Norman to appreciate them.

Like many recent titles, Paranorman is building on the perhaps overblown mainstream love of geek culture. More specifically, it is a subculture film: if you have no interest in Halloween the film or classic zombie movies, Paranorman will waste a lot of its charm. It is following the cultural trend towards specialization: works appealing to small subcultures, but pulling out all the stops to appease them.

As someone with a decent appreciation of the horror genre, Paranorman worked. Its charming moments didn’t quite charm me as much as they could have, and the whole film felt like a bit of an in-joke, but Paranorman is nothing if not consistent. It’s not a film with middle ground: it will either work with you, or it will flop, almost exclusively depending on your appreciation of last century horror.

Children, however, will appreciate the message, particularly the outcasts. Paranorman does an acute job of capturing the feeling of being an outcast, of being someone interested in unacceptable things. The filmmakers capture that experience perfectly, and they even illustrate (albeit off-camera) a lot of the negative feelings that come with that. The film is a lovely, multifaceted view of an outcast childhood, neither glamorizing nor demonizing. It’s evenhandedness is its greatest strength: while all the characters begin as archetypes, they shift away from these roots as the work progresses, until by the end you feel like they’re all living people.

It adds up to an engrossing film for the horror appreciator, the outcast, and the geek. I cannot picture it breaking out into the mainstream, but Paranorman will have a place on the Halloween film shelf for quite some time to come, next to the classics.


From → Et Cetera

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