Image from 'Couples Retreat'
The unexpectedly strong box office perfomance of both Couples Retreat and Paranormal Activity show that respect for genre traditions and fundamental American values consistently make for successful popular art, S. T. Karnick writes.

Bolstered by a weak slate of competition and a huge amount of television commercials over the past few weeks, the comedy Couples Retreat, starring and cowritten by Vince Vaughn, won the U.S. movie box office derby with its debut this weekend, achieving strong earnings of $35.3 million. Industry analysts were surprised, having predicted the film to bring in but $20 million during its first weekend.

The vulgar and broad but amusing comedy drew in large audiences despite horrible reviews from the critics. The film’s combination of comical sensationalism and largely traditional values helped it connect with audiences. That’s a classic American comedy approach, and Vaughn’s ability to tap into it made it an unexpectedly strong success.

Also doing unexpectedly well: the independently produced horror film Paranormal Activity, which earned $7.1 million in only 160 theaters around the nation. For comparison, the top three films of the week each played in about 3,000 theaters.

Paranormal Activity refreshes the horror genre by returning to a strong tradition in Gothic fiction: ordinary characters with whom the audience can identify, in situations with which the audience can identify, which are then turned into frightening, usually preternatural scenarios. It’s a genre that could use a little refreshing, given the pattern of mounting gore and depictions of torture in recent years.

Thus a stronger intellectual and psychologically plausible approach is greatly welcome, and initial audience reaction to Paranormal Activity seems to reflect this.

–S. T. Karnick