Paranormal Activity (2007)
Directed by: Oren Peli
Starring: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong
1/2 (out of 4)
Micah, a day trader, and Katie, an English major, live together in a nice San Diego town home. Micah just got himself a brand new camera, the purpose of which is to document the eerie, paranormal goings on that seem to be related to Katie’s history of being followed around by an unseen presence since she was about 8 years old. At the beginning of Paranormal Activity, we get no credits, no opening Paramount logo, no title card – we are simply guests to the viewing of Micah and Katie’s home movie. The film is shot in camcorder-style (using a Sony Handycam HDR-FX1) – sometimes hand-held by our main characters, sometimes stationary, when Micah places it on a table overlooking the bed. You guessed it – Paranormal Activity is The Blair Witch Project of the 00s.
Written and directed by Oren Peli, the film is bare-bones, with a touch of special effects that are well integrated into the environment. Like Blair Witch, there are no musical themes, makeup, tracking shots, “cinematic” styles. The idea is that you are watching footage that has been discovered by police after the events – on this level, I was very surprised to find that Paranormal Activity works pretty well. Peli likes the slow-burn, so he starts off with small events – a loud noise, keys falling off the kitchen counter, the bedroom door moving a few inches. Micah, being amused, taunts the ghost, or demon, as a local psychic (Mark Fredrichs) believes it is, which is probably not a good idea. Then Katie starts acting strangely – having nightmares, standing at the side of the bed in the same position for hours, sleepwalking outside. Micah gets the dumb idea of using a Ouija board to try to contact the entity – something everybody tells him is a horrible idea but he goes through with anyway. Then the demon really gets pissed off. It leaves a burned photo from a house fire from Katie’s past in the attic, it drags her out of bed… and naturally the demonologist is out of town. (There’s never a good demonologist when you need one).
I liked the film. Normally, I’m not a big fan of the hand-held-camera/POV/gonzo-style of film-making – especially with horror flicks, because in real life you reach a point where you toss the camera when monsters are chasing you, posterity be damned. To the movie’s credit, it sets up situations where it’s more plausible that the characters would continue filming, given that most of the time, their circumstances aren’t immediately life-threatening, and Peli manages to keep “shaky-cam”to a minimum. I think where he succeeds is in the mixing of the supernatural with the mundane of everyday life, in a way that has a proper balance. The movie never veers so far out of the “suburban living” experience that I was pulled out of it. There also might be something to the idea that things seem more real when viewed through the personal handycam, as opposed to watching it in stylish 35mm. There could be, also, my increasing familiarity with this style of filmmaking – I am more comfortable with it, and perhaps we all are, in the age of YouTube where Ludditism has completely disappeared and we have all given in to technology; part of this involves our embrace of voyeurism, something that the movie’s many bedroom scenes will appeal to.
Not to say Paranormal Activity doesn’t have flaws. It’s fairly predictable (Katie”””s fate is telegraphed early on); the ending is slightly anticlimactic. Micah never thinks to take his footage to the media, or at least to some more experts in the paranormal (he seems really adamant that collecting all data will help him fix the “problem” but he never really does anything useful with it). Finally, the film uses shock tactics like loud sudden noises, or closing doors to frighten – personally I didn’t find the flick very frightening, merely intriguing. If you gave in to the Paramount spin machine, you’ll probably be disappointed – this movie has been hailed and hyped as some kind of masterpiece, and it’s certainly not that. Most positive reactions, I feel, could be due to the idea that Paranormal Activity is the antithesis of the modern shock-horror/torture-porn movies that have invaded the mainstream. This flick is a plausible alternative to that tired genre, which could explain why it creamed Saw VI at the box office in October of 2009. (it took in $22 million opening weekend; Saw VI took $14 million). The movie is not wholly original (it owes debt to The Exorcist as well as Blair Witch, Cannibal Holocaust, [Rec], etc), but there is a simplicity in its premise that appealed to me. I think it manages to add a little more realism to the ghost story by bringing it inside the suburban home – I am not surprised that Spielberg took a liking to it, given his involvement with another suburban spook story – as well as his own low-budget debut Duel. While the movie probably works best as a shared experience (midnight screenings and all that), it’s still not bad for a lazy afternoon in your living room, as long as you temper your expectations.
- Bill Gordon