The Fourth Kind has out–Blair Witch’d The Blair Witch Project. Director and co-writer Olatunde Osunsanmi’s first feature starts off rather cheesily, with star Milla Jovovich introducing herself as herself. She very seriously warns viewers that the forthcoming story—about alien abductions in Alaska—is not only disturbing but that “every scene is supported by archived footage.” Jovovich then unnecessarily suggests that we can believe whatever we want. She reiterates this last sentiment at the end of the film, by which point you’re stunned in your seat, fighting the creeping realization that the insomnia inspired by Paranormal Activity is about to return.
The parallels between The Fourth Kind and Paranormal, the micro-budgeted Indie That Could, go beyond the films’ mockumentary conceits, which makes the snug timing of their releases a bit disappointing for the easily bored horror fan. Jovovich plays Abigail Tyler, a Nome psychologist whose husband was murdered. Shortly thereafter, her patients start telling her of common experiences: They’re having trouble sleeping; when they awake in the middle of the night, an owl is at their window; they can’t recall anything else, except the gut feeling that things are not cool.
Similarly, Abbey remembers only certain details of her husband’s stabbing and undergoes hypnosis in an attempt to see the assailant’s face. So she puts her patients under as well, with increasingly unsettling and violent results: They describe the owl, then say the owl was never there. Someone/-thing else is, though, and lots of screaming, thrashing, and “Oh God”s follow. A couple of people end up dead soon after their sessions, leading the town’s sheriff (Will Patton) to keep a close eye on Abbey, ready to charge her as an accessory to murder.
This all might make a decent-enough thriller, disregarding some stiff acting (though Jovovich is mostly fine) and laughable lines (“You just can’t stop being insane. That’s the kind of thing that stays with ya!”). What elevates The Fourth Kind into shiver-inducing territory is that aforementioned archival footage—it’s included, and it’s creepy. You won’t find a credit for the actress, but someone else plays—or does she?—the “real” Abigail Tyler, mostly shown alone giving an interview.
Osunsanmi’s stroke of brilliance, however, is frequently splitting the screen to display the re-creations side-by-side with their source—it may be frightening to watch an actor on crisp film react to an alien attack, but when it’s next to grainy, time-stamped footage of someone else doing the same thing…brrrr. This approach outplays the found-footage gimmick of Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity by admitting up front that the movie is fake—but by the way, here’s the genuine stuff that inspired each line and action. It doesn’t help that “real” Abbey looks nearly alien herself, gaunt and clearly still traumatized.
There are also no little green men here. You see only the patients under hypnosis, though these scenes are freaky enough, with the director borrowing the go-to moves of demonic possession to paint the picture: people bolting upright or levitating, distorted faces (“real” Abbey’s jaw unhinges to approximately her knees), angry-sounding and occasionally translated messages from the aliens, whom a linguist concludes are speaking an ancient Sumerian language. The sole knock against the movie is really one of personal taste—that is to say, it’s rather loud. Whereas Paranormal was quietly tense with only minimal violence, The Fourth Kind is straight-up Hollywood in its action and noise, with an intrusive soundtrack that includes ominous music and cues for cheap scares and non-E.T. scenes composed largely of characters yelling at one another. But though the film’s insistence on getting in your face is generic, its spin on the reality-horror genre is inspired—and, more important, haunting.
Have you ever gone to a modern-art showing and felt like the dumbest person in the room? Those who nod appreciatively at what’s essentially junk are called out as poseurs in (Untitled), writer-director Jonathan Parker’s very funny and on-the-nose takedown of artsy pretension.
Interestingly, though, the character who ends up most sympathetic starts out as the most infuriating. Adrien (Adam Goldberg, born for the role) is a New York composer whose work can be called avant-garde at best and insufferable at worst. Harmony—which Adrien damns as “a capitalist plot to sell pianos”—is absent in his music; instead there is atonality, bucket-kicking, paper-crumpling, and, frequently, wailing, the last provided by his good-natured clarinetist (Lucy Punch, whose character is called only “the Clarinet”). His performances are sparsely attended, and even those who sit though them have no qualms about trashing his work: One pair tells him a show was “40 minutes of pure tedium” and that his music is “emotionally bankrupt with no relation to the way human beings make sense of sound.”
One person gets Adrien, however, and that’s his brother’s girlfriend, Madeleine (Marley Shelton). Adrien immediately dislikes her because her noisy clothes distract him during a concert. But afterward, Madeleine dissects his compositions and confesses a deep reaction to them. She owns a gallery in Chelsea in which she displays nonsense. (One artist’s work is centered on taxidermy, with pieces such as a rooster stuck in a dartboard and a lamb that fell off a bicycle. Her interpretation: “His narratives are so powerful.”) But to keep money coming in, she sells the paintings of Adrien’s brother, Josh (Eion Bailey), mostly to hotel chains. Such commercial appeal is gauche, of course, so she stores Josh’s work in the office. He’s also not going to win Madeleine’s heart. Adrien, though, is another story.
(Untitled) was co-written by frequent Parker collaborator Catherine DiNapoli and is less about romantic connections than about the ludicrousness of artists and collectors who affix deep meaning to works such as a pushpin stuck in a wall or blankness itself (herein titled “Wall Surrounding Space”). Madeleine, who, it becomes increasingly clear, is full of shit, defends the works she champions as suffering from “the van Gogh syndrome,” i.e. geniuses who were dismissed until well after their deaths. And though she has a point—to a point—Josh offers a more apt critique: “When did beauty become so fucking ugly?” Adrien, meanwhile, just wants to be creative and get people’s attention, as he entertainingly does during his day job, playing piano at a restaurant that’s filled with diners gabbing on their cells.
The script itself is clever but the performances here sell it, particularly those of Vinnie Jones and Ptolemy Slocum, who have minor roles as artists, Zak Orth as a faux-intelligentsia collector, and Punch, whose expressions are a delicious balance between feigned understanding and bafflement when included in discussions about art. Shelton is perfectly sophisticated and believably defensive, and Goldberg uses his sarcasm and scowl to wonderful effect. (Untitled) offers a strong yet witty statement about art and those who pursue it. But all you really need to know is this: If you’ve ever busted out laughing at works such as, oh, child mannequins with penises growing out of their heads, you’ll find plenty to entertain you here.