You’ve got to hand it to Jennifer Chambers Lynch: The daughter of cinematic visionary David Lynch is nothing if not persistent.
Her 1993 debut as a director, “Boxing Helena,” featured “Twin Peaks” bombshell Sherilyn Fenn with all four limbs amputated and held captive by the always odious Julian Sands. This film worked on audiences like insect repellent does on bugs, and it seemed like the younger Lynch’s career was on a swift spiral down the old porcelain bowl.
Now, some 15 years later, she’s back with a second film, “Surveillance,” which answers the question: What would you get if you crossed “Twin Peaks” with “Friday the 13th?” Unlike “Boxing Helena,” it won’t make you want to throw stuff at the screen, but you’ll still leave the cinema with a rather grimy feeling.
The fun starts with a couple in a motel bed being suddenly attacked by a loony in a white mask who beats them to death with a baseball bat. A couple of FBI agents, played by Bill Pullman (“Lost Highway”) and Julia Ormond, show up at the local police station to help the redneck cops (French Stewart, Michael Ironside) with the ensuing investigation. A few witnesses from a later roadside massacre are also present: spooked tween Stephanie (Ryan Simpkins) saw her family killed before her eyes, while cokehead Bobbi (Pell James) is more concerned with covering her own ass.
Lynch has Pullman’s agent in a separate room, monitoring all the interrogations on video. The director also uses flashbacks from the various characters’ perspectives in a way that’s clearly influenced by “Rashomon”; every character lies, and every time it’s to cover up their own sleazy misdeeds.
By the time the last reel spins, you’ll have long since realized that you hate pretty much every character up on the screen, and just want the misery to end. As the serial killers get their rocks off by sexually abusing one character while strangling her to death, you’ll realize that Lynch has gleamed all the disturbing, cruel and violent bits from her dad’s oeuvre, while taking on none of the eccentric humor, mystery, or romanticism. Imagine “Wild At Heart” without Sailor or Lula in it and you’d be getting close.
“Paranormal Activity,” the low-budget horror flick (made for a mere $15,000) that miraculously went on to hit No. 1 at the U.S. box office, could just as easily have been called “Things that Go Bump in the Night.” Director Oren Feli takes that one basic, primal fear and attempts to fashion an entire film out of it, with mixed results.
Imagine a bedroom “Blair Witch Project” and you’ve got the idea. When a happy, loving couple (Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston) realize that weird stuff is happening while they’re asleep, he sets up a video camera to record what may or may not be happening, much to her consternation. The entire film purports to be the actual footage they subsequently shot.
Like “Blair Witch,” this features vast stretches of amateurish actors, like, ad-libbing dialogue; haphazard hand-held camerawork; and a few well-placed moments of sheer terror. The use of sound is excellent, and the simplest setups — nothing in the bedroom but we hear clumping footsteps and see a shadow across the door — will definitely set you on edge.
The success or failure of this sort of film depends entirely on how much you buy its “reality.” Making freaky stuff happen in this oh-so-familiar environment — a Webcam trained on a bedroom — clearly resonated with the teen demographic, but while it may have made a great viral YouTube hoax, “Paranormal Activity” is stretched pretty thin over 90 minutes. Less talk, more shock.