ParaNorman directors inspired by classic animation, cult horror—and Margaret Thatcher?
In 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s government enacted sweeping censorship laws under the Video Recordings Act. Across the U.K., video stores were raided by police and any tapes identified as a “video nasty”—the official list included movies like Cannibal Holocaust and Last House on the Left—were confiscated.
Naturally, the exercise backfired, creating a huge interest in illicit horror and exploitation cinema, a massive black market, and a generation of people like Sam Fell, co-director (with Chris Butler) of the marvellous and highly macabre kid’s movie ParaNorman (opening today [August 17]).
“I think that’s what happened,” Fell says, speaking to the Georgia Straight from Toronto. “We’ve all come of age and now we’re making films. I do think that little moment has been an influence on all of us. And now we’re all parents, that’s what I think is interesting. Zombies are now almost mainstream, and now our kids are coming to see this stuff. It’s interesting how the underground becomes overground.”
The 46 year-old was already headed in that direction, mind you. He recalls sneaking downstairs to catch classic Hammer and Universal horrors on TV after his parents went to bed, and his older sister’s boyfriends brought a steady stream of forbidden cinematic delights into the home.
Between that and his abiding obsession with stop-motion animation—Brits will recognize after-school classics like Bagpuss, Clangers, and Magic Roundaboutin his rundown of influences—Fell seemed destined to make a film like ParaNorman.
The story of an 11 year-old boy who communicates with the dead, the film also recognizes that kids in general tend to have a taste for the morbid. “I think that’s natural,” offers Fell, whose own eight year-old “absolutely loves” ParaNorman.
“Parents want to gradually introduce the whole world to their kids, so they kinda create this safe bubble. But I think, inversely, kids are hard-wired to look beyond that bubble. There are mysteries beyond the nest that I think kids are fascinated by, and I think monsters and ghouls and ghosts and scary stuff kinda represents that slightly forbidden world beyond.”
The film also succeeds in capturing a certain ambiguity to Norman’s experience—rare enough in movies for grown-ups these days, let alone for the juvenile set. “There’s a beauty to his vision,” Fell observes. “His interactions with the ghosts, there’s a kind of happiness in there, but there’s a melancholy in the fact that he’s a lone boy and everybody’s treating him like an outsider.”
Visually, the ParaNorman team conjures mood with autumnal colours and antique design elements (the ghosts are inspired by Victorian-era photographs of the supernatural). Jon Brion’s lovely, bittersweet score completes the picture.
“Jon’s so good at emotion,” Fell says, with a hint of awe, “and [the score] has this slightly downbeat sensibility to it, this kinda indie vibe. It’s not big, grand strings, it’s not John Williams.” He adds that co-director Butler had produced an early storyboard with a scratch track lifted from Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind soundtrack. “To me it spoke volumes about how the movie should feel,” he says.
And in keeping with the mood behind the camera, it turns out that Brion is every inch the fantastic-cinema nerd as his directors. “He’s a mad scientist, that guy,” Fell exclaims, “and he found out exactly what Moog synthesizer John Carpenter used on Halloween, and he hunted it down, and that’s the real one. That’s why you feel it.” The man could not sound more excited about this.
You can follow Adrian Mack's contribution to the lobotomizing techno-nightmare known as Twitter at @AdrianMacked.