At The Picture Show
Ultra-hyped, low-budget darling 'Paranormal Activity' delivers on the strength of its techniques
Director: Oren Peli
Screenplay: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat and Mark Fredrichs
Rated R / 1 hour, 26 minutes
Opened nationwide October 16, 2009
(out of four)
A few months ago, I wrote that the Spanish horror film [REC] revealed the
shortcomings of the first-person camera technique. It wasn't being used in any
particularly unique way, I argued, and its very ordinariness didn't bode well for the
shelf life of the gimmick it employed.
While that was invariably true of that film, the same can't be said for the indie
sensation Paranormal Activity, a frequently effective horror movie that, at the very
least, does find a way to use the first-person style to its advantage. Which is to say
it finds a way for that technique to matter, rather than just being another superficial
expansion on established form.
The fact that a video camera is present is of
tantamount importance to the characters. After all, nothing else can give any
concrete legitimacy to the eerie things that have been happening around their house
lately. But more importantly, the footage is integrated into the plot in a way that
goes beyond providing a vehicle for our fright or amusement.
Katie (Katie Featherston) lives with her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat) in
suburban San Diego. She has seemingly been haunted by some sort of demonic
force recently - and, much to Micah's surprise, she reveals that it's something that
has afflicted her since childhood. A video camera is the only thing that can
actually give them a hint at what they're actually dealing with. And so Micah buys
one, sets it up on a tripod in their bedroom and keeps it rolling all night.
(Of course, he also parades around the house filming everything he can, like any
guy with a new toy.)
Gradually, the presence of the demon - or whatever it is - gets stronger and
stronger, seemingly sapping Katie of her grip on any sense of normalcy. Micah
doesn't take the problem seriously at first - and is much more concerned with
capturing whatever it is on film, as if it's something he's all too anxious to put up
on YouTube - but gradually gets drawn into a sense of fear and anxiety the more
he gets a look at the video footage.
One thing Paranormal Activity does well is set
up its two characters initially - before any bumps, scares, howls or spirits enter into
it. We see a plausible, and rather endearing, relationship dynamic between the two
that gradually gets disturbed. The battle of the sexes, in this case, is no different
than it might be when it comes to fixing the furnace or getting lost in the middle of
the nowhere. Micah is the man of the house, he insists, and he'll get to the bottom
of this himself.
With that as the backdrop, the events we (and they) see caught on camera get
increasingly eerie. On a budget of a reported $15,000, writer/director Oren Peli in
a certain way has more freedom to be creative with what he shows and what he
doesn't. Most of the creepiest moments we see are made up of, say, ambiguous
shadows on the wall, or the half-closing of a door, or the faint imprint of something
(something!) on that shiny hardwood floor.
The film has been most often compared to The Blair Witch Project - for its low
budget, its style and its status as an underground, rags-to-riches success story.
Like Blair Witch (which I still think is the better of the two films), Paranormal
Activity disrupts the kinds of rhythms we're used to from a horror movie. Almost
to the point that there is no rhythm to it - at least not on the whole. And that's one
of the reasons it works. At times, the film is genuinely chilling and even a bit
disarming - and Peli accomplishes this by showing just a little. Or nothing at all.
The power of suggestion is alive and well.
In a way, that could almost hurt Paranormal Activity. Not at the box office, of
course, but in terms of its eventual reputation. Think back to the year of Blair
Witch, and all those people who stormed out of the moving just hating it - or at
least feeling underwhelmed. At the screening of Paranormal Activity I attended,
there were some audience members feeling the same sentiment.
Part of that has to do with the hype machine,
which the movie can't possibly live up to. But another aspect is that it violates all
the norms we've come to expect from the genre - and, for that matter, from movies
in general. Moviegoers' collective interest might be piqued by all the attention
centered around this movie, but that doesn't mean they actually want to see an
alternative to the norm. They just want to be part of the club.
Those who enjoy having the regular routines in movies disrupted will be better
equipped to appreciate it.
That's not to say Paranormal Activity is a perfect movie - not by a longshot. The
storyline encounters silly flaws with even sillier explanations, and the actors don't
always have the chops to pull off every scene. But most of what it does, it does
pretty well. And if the film's success story is enough to get studios to take another
chance or two on a low-budget longshot, I'm all for it.
Read more by Chris Bellamy