Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Paranormal Activity

You remember The Blair Witch Project hype back in 1999 (ooh – tenth anniversary!). The fake but rather captivating web site: “In October of 1994 three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods," and so on. The creepy symbols made out of wood. Then the movie with that shaky handheld video camera that becomes our point of view for the entire film – kind of irritating, but it gets quite scary. The eyes, forehead, and ski cap of Heather Donahue, saying, “I am so scared.” I didn’t feel the same way about the dark woods behind our house for quite a while.

Now comes Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity - right when you’re thinking that the last thing you want is another shaky handheld video camera horror movie. Thus, the hype: “What happens when you sleep?” proclaims the slug line; exclusive viewings in select cities; a web site where you are told, “First-ever major film release decided by you. Demand it. Hit 1,000,000 demands and it will open nationwide.” Critics rave. I'm intrigued, the film comes to Boston-area cinemas, and I drive off Cape to see it.

In Paranormal Activity Katie (Katie Featherston) has been haunted by a demon all her life, so her boyfriend, Micah (Micah Sloat), suggests setting up a time-lapse video camera to see what happens while they’re sleeping.

The film plays on that sense of vulnerability we feel when we’re lying in our bed at night, and on those fears we may have had in childhood when the sounds we heard suggested a demon stomping up the stairway or opening the creaking door, and we might have feared a monster in the closet or under our bed.

The film’s tension builds very gradually, perhaps too gradually, with a little too much girlfriend-boyfriend affection and friction between the tense and distraught Katie and the rather obnoxious Micah who seems to be aggravating the situation by setting up his camera and getting a ouija board, against Katie's wishes. They do what couples do, they eat Chinese food, and Micah keeps fooling around with the camera. "Turn that thing off," says Katie but, of course, Micah never does.

Fortunately, we are spared that shaky-camera-induced nausea that afflicted many viewers of Cloverfield, since Micah sets up the camera on a tripod at night - and night (usually around 3:15 a.m., for some reason) is when strange things happen. And that is when the film is at its best, haunting you with the possibilities of what lurks outside the bedroom door in the darkness at the end of the landing or what might ascend the stairway from the blackness below.

Then things get uncomfortable: a thump in the night, a door opening by itself, footsteps on the staircase, a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who senses a demonic presence. (The psychic, firmly confident in his belief in the presence, lends strength to the film's tension; unfortunately, his appearances are brief.) And then…

Don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you what happens. NO SPOILERS HERE. But is Paranormal Activity as scary as critics say it is? I suspect that depends on the viewer. Was I scared? I found it to be a scary concept: a demon following Katie over a period of many years; and it's not the house; it doesn't matter where she is. It follows her. What does it want? A nifty allusion to the demonic possession case that inspired The Exorcist, shown in an article that includes some fleeting but creepy images, illustrates exactly what the demon wants: Katie. And as Katie seems to be losing the will to resist the demon, we know something bad will happen - just like we knew it would in those dark Maryland woods.

CAUTION: Comments may contain SPOILERS.


FilmDr said...

What kind of post is this? You've gone so far away from spoiling the movie, I can't tell if you recommend it or not. I do looking forward to seeing Paranormal Activity, however. And the film's success and budget of about $11,000 is good news for upcoming filmmakers.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr. - Good comment. I was going to say something about how the minimal budget shows that imagination can save a lot of money - though the handheld video camera gimmick is going to save you a lot of money right there. What's viewer-friendly about this video camera movie is that the camera is set up on a tripod when they are sleeping - and that's most of the movie.

"You've gone so far away from spoiling the movie, I can't tell if you recommend it or not." You're right. There's no way I can review this movie without giving too much away. But I think you should see it.

Hokahey said...

Note: Hopefully not going nearer to spoiling the movie, my review has been rewritten since the above comments were posted.

Fox said...


Thank you for pointing out how annoying Micah is for the entire movie. I was so distracted by him being the worst-boyfriend-ever that I had trouble sinking in to the movie.

I think this film is very overrated. Not here, by you, but by the critics at large. I get that it's kind of a fun experience (you rightly point out that the best parts of the film are the night vision shots... I think those are the ONLY parts I even kind of enjoyed), but as a film, I think it is really poor, and just can't help but scratch my head over why critics have been praising it.

As a gag, as a business idea, as a marketing strategy, I admire Paranormal Activity, but as a movie, I could really do without it.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Fox, I was not only annoyed by Micah, but I was annoyed by the distribution gimmick. I love to see movies right when they come out, so if it's a limited release - or a gimmick like this - I get pissed, and when it wasn't a great movie worthy of the special hype, I was even more ticked.

As for Micah - when what happens to him happens to him, I wanted to shout, "All right! You deserved it!" But that's not what the film wanted from me, so I think that's a failure upon the part of the writers.

Okay, like Blair Witch, you've got your low budget, small cast, inexpensive location, and your handheld video camera. (Well, that's easy to make that kind of a film low budget.) Still, there's a lot more they could have done - within the budget - using a little more imagination - to have made this film more gripping. Such as - I was disappointed the demonologist didn't make an appearance because I felt the ghost expert added a lot of credence and gravity to the premise.

Odd thing - they look at the article about the Georgetown demon possession - why don't Katie and Micah say, "Oh, The Exorcist."? They would have knowledge of that movie.

Kat Faudeburgh said...

All throughout the movie I thought Micah was annoying. Annoying! He basically brought the demon out by provoking it when the psychic told him what would happen if he did. He did it anyway, then he doesn't put the camera away, he doesnt call a demonologist, he gets a ouiji board, then he plays with the demon by spreading dust everywhere. It's not like he's hanging crosses everywhere or getting holy water trying to protect his girlfriend. Oh no, he invites evil into the house. Great guy.

Hokahey said...

Kat, thanks for the comment. Micah was definitely annoying and not too wise. The film wastes too much time on Micah and doesn't spend enough on building tension.