“Paranormal Activity 2 is an efficient delivery system for Gotcha! Moments, of which it has about 19. Audiences who want to be Gotchaed will enjoy it. A Gotcha! Moment is a moment when something is sudden, loud and scary. This can be as basic as the old It’s Only a Cat cliché, or as abrupt as a character being hit by a bus.” – Roger Ebert, Paranormal Activity 2
I hate Gotcha! Moments. Hate ‘em. Loathe ‘em. Despise ‘em. Can’t stand ‘em. Oh, they usually make me jump. Of course, they do. Door opens and the killer appears and that loud chord is banged on the soundtrack and you jump and, well, so what? Even present day M. Night Shyamalan can pull that off. It makes you leap outta your seat but is it scary? When it comes to scary I want to be terrified and terror, for me, is generated via ominous, slow-building, unrelenting and (this is the word worth all the magic beans in the forest) inevitable dread. Let’s capitalize that, shall we? INEVITABLE DREAD. Nothing can be done. Fate’s been written.
In Alien (1979) the alien itself has popped outta John Hurt’s chest and so he’s done and then Harry Dean Stanton meets his maker as apparently the alien has become a whole bunch bigger and so now the alien is loose in the air ducts onboard the Nostromo and so Capt. Dallas (Tom Skerritt) says he’ll go into the ducts and flush this thing out. Except before he goes into the ducts he sits down with the ship’s computer to inquire about his chances surviving this whole ordeal. The computer basically says it can’t compute. And this is huge, massive, because we know before Dallas even enters the vent that he ain’t coming out alive. INEVITABLE DREAD. Nothing can be done. Fate’s been written.
So now Dallas is in the duct and he’s got the flashlight and the flamethrower and he’s crawling around and director Ridley Scott pairs these shots with shots of the remaining crew standing around listening – just listening. Waiting. And Veronica Cartwright’s Lambert has that kinda crude electronic grid displaying Dallas’s position within the duct and then, eventually, the alien’s position. “It’s somewhere around the third junction,” Lambert tells him. Listen to the soundtrack. Heavy, heavy breathing by Dallas. And the music. It’s not shrieking or sudden. It’s not even trying to throw you off the scent so it can Getya! It’s this low ominous chord over and over. It knows what’s coming and it’s telling you what’s coming.
He proceeds to the third duct. But the dot has disappeared on Lambert’s screen. “You’ll have to hold your position,” she tells him. So Dallas is sitting there, middle of this vent, all alone, nowhere, really, to go. There is a shot of just Dallas’s dot on the grid – loneliest, most frighteneing computer dot you’ll ever see. Then Dallas finds this slimy substance all over the walls of the vent. “Are you sure it’s not there?” asks Lambert. “I mean, it’s got to be around there somewhere.” Dallas shoots a few flames, hoping that maybe, just maybe, he’ll hit this creature, wherever it is. He doesn’t. It’s not there. So where is it? That soundtrack still keeps coming back with that low chord. Dallas closes his eyes for a second. Then he decides. “I want to get the hell outta here,” he says, and the instant he says that is the instant the alien’s dot shows back up on Lambert’s grid. “Oh my God,” she cries out, “it’s there! It’s moving right towards you!” And Dallas, looking around, not seeing anything, says, helplessly, “Uh….”
This, of course, is the single most effective use of the word “Uh” in the history of the English language. Translation To This Moment: There is a gigantic alien creature with acid for blood moving right towards you with the lone intention of killing you in a way so horrific mankind didn’t even know it was possible but you have absolutely no idea where it is or when it’s going to get there, just that it’s coming. What else can one say but “Uh….”?
So now Dallas gets his move on, trying to get outta there, desperately trying, but you know what’s coming. Everybody knows what’s coming. It’s inevitable. Nothing can be done. Fate’s been written. Pick up the hymnals. Mass is over. But still, against your better judgement, all you want, for the love of God, is for Dallas to get the hell outta that vent and get back down to – and then the alien’s there and there’s that awful, excruciating hiss and then the next shot of Parker (Yaphett Kotto) slamming Dallas’s framethrower down on the table in front of the rest of the crew and saying “This was all we found. No blood. No Dallas. Nothing.” And I get the willies and then I curl up in a quivering ball beneath my coffee table fully intending to never come back out because no five minutes ever presented cinematically has scared me as much.
Really, think about it, if you’re gonna go how do you wanna go? Do you wanna go with the monster and/or killer sneaking up behind you and slashing your throat and so before you even know what happened you’re already chilling up there in the ever after or do you wanna go by crawling around in a slime-ridden vent for five minutes, sweating, shaking, thinking non-stop, “So I’m, like, about to die, right?”