|Paranormal Activity (2009)|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Daniel Hirshleifer|
|Monday, 28 September 2009|
What happens when we close our eyes at night? What sort of things lurk in the dark, waiting for us to drop our guard, waiting to feast on our flesh and prey on our souls? Have you ever tried to fall asleep, only to toss and turn, certain that someone, or something, was watching you? What if that something decided that watching wasn't enough? What if it decided the time had come...to act?
You see, Katie (Katie Featherston) has been experiencing this her whole life. Ever since she was eight, she would wake in the middle of the night to find a shadowy figure looming at the foot of her bed. The figure would come and go, haunting her at intervals, regardless of where she moved to try and escape it. Still, aside from the base fear of the unknown, this being never harmed Katie in any way. Still, the phenomenon was interesting enough that her live-in boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), decided to buy a video camera and document what was happening. From the first night, his efforts were rewarded, with visual confirmation that something was moving the door to their bedroom. Katie calls in a psychic (Michael Bayouth), who reveals that the being haunting her is in fact a demon, and thus outside of his area of expertise. He gives her the number of a demonologist, but Micah, still skeptical, makes her promise not to call.
As the nights wear on, the activity gets more pronounced. Loud bangs are heard often. Items are moved while the couple is asleep. Lamps are found swaying without any wind. Micah becomes fascinated, while Katie's fear grows. Micah taunts the demon, calling it out, demanding that it communicate. This just makes the effects worse. And Katie's behavior becomes more erratic, more frayed and out of control. What is it that this demon wants, and will the couple be able to take much more of its abuse?
Paranormal Activity was a film project by writer/director Oren Peli, made for only $11,000. Paramount Pictures picked it up not to release it, but to remake it. However, test screenings proved so wildly successful that the studio decided not to bother with a costly remake, and instead release the original. Their plan is to start in college cities, making events out of the screenings, and letting the audience spread word of the film's effectiveness on their own. At the screening I attended, Paramount had even set up computers outside the theater so patrons could Facebook and tweet their thoughts on it the moment they stepped out the door.
With all this hype, Paranormal Activity looks like it might be on the same track as The Blair Witch Project was a decade ago. But does the movie live up to the hype? Could any movie scare and shock audiences so thoroughly that it becomes the new gold standard for the horror genre, showing Hollywood just how it's done in the process?
The answer is, sadly, no. Paranormal Activity is not the be-all, end-all of horror movies. Nor is it even the best demonic possession movie. However, it does show that first time filmmaker Oren Peli understands the mechanics of suspense, going back to the tried and true method of scaring the audience with what is not on the screen. Other than a shadow and a set of footprints, we never see Katie's demon. But we do hear him, and see the effects of his presence. Lights turn on and off. A picture of the couple is found with Micah's face ripped. Even before we see the door move while the couple sleeps, the audience is more than happy to believe that Katie truly is being haunted. After all, it's fun to be scared, and Peli plays delightfully with our fears of the unknown.
The piece is sold by two things: Smart effects and Katie Featherston. Katie goes from a happy-go-lucky girl with some paranormal baggage to a broken husk. Unable to sleep without fear of a haunting, she sells us her breakdown. We can see her world is crumbling, all without grand gestures. It's a natural, lived-in performance. The effects, shown without guile from a tripod-locked camera, do the rest. The vast majority of them are simple, proving that sometimes the oldest tricks work the best. But then, there are a few, such as a set of footprints, for example, that really set the audience off. Peli shows you just enough to stop you from scoffing, and then lets your imagination run wild with the rest.
However, there are some problems with the film. As I mentioned before, the audience is ready to believe in the truth of Katie's claims from frame one. After all, the movie is called Paranormal Activity. Micah, however, doesn't take it at all seriously, despite seeing the evidence firsthand. When he is told not to try and communicate with the demon in any way, he agrees with a smirk. He promises not to buy a Ouija board, and simply borrows one instead. And once he does believe in the seriousness of it, he continues to goad the demon and make bad decisions. There are only four actors in the movie, and two of them are only in two scenes apiece. So for one of the leads, with whom we're spending 98% of the picture, to be such a jerk really drops the audiences sympathies considerably.
And the other problem is that, no matter how skillfully Peli may place his effects and mix his sound, the movie just isn't that scary. That isn't to say that the movie isn't suspenseful. There's plenty of suspense, as you wait to see exactly what the demon will do. But, inevitably, the payoff doesn't reward the build-up. The audience is so busy thinking about exactly what could be going on in the dark that once we finally see it, the end result is never as scary as what we imagined. Aside from two really excellent sequences, the demon's activities are more tame than what the audience has already cooked up in their heads. And once the film reaches its home stretch, you can see the unimaginative ending coming a mile away.
However, despite the flaws, Paranormal Activity is certainly worthy of praise. Peli's filmmaking skills are on display for the world to see, and despite his few missteps, he does good. This is the kind of movie best seen in a dark theater, packed to the gills with a nervous audience who doesn't know what to expect. And the next time you go to sleep, try not to think too hard about whether or not you're all alone.