Tuesday, October 13, 2009
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.
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