Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2009

Night vision

Ultra-hyped, low-budget darling 'Paranormal Activity' delivers on the strength of its techniques

Paranormal Activity
Paramount Pictures
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

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