- Rated R
- Buy the Blu-ray
All photos © Paramount
Reviewed by Bob Westal
he hype around “Paranormal Activity” is more than justified, but it still isn’t much more than an extremely well-made engine for getting a roomful of people to squirm, giggle, and actually scream in near unison. In a way, it’s entirely unfair that I’ve given this barebones video terror flick a slightly higher rating than an artful and far more fully developed horror construction like “Drag Me to Hell, but life isn’t fair and dramatic depictions of creeping death are even less so.
“Paranormal Activity,” which has been making the film festival rounds since last year, starts out in true post-“Blair Witch” fashion, eschewing ordinary credits and replacing them with titles implying that Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat may be less than completely healthy; the filmmakers thank their parents and their local police department for the use of the edited home video footage we’re about to see. After that, the set-up is about as simple as things get: Grad-student Katie believes that she has been dogged by a decidedly unfriendly presence of some sort her entire life, and that lately it has been getting worse. As our tale begins, her ebulliently arrogant day trader live-in boyfriend, Micah, decides to pursue the spectral whatsis by putting them both under constant videotape surveillance in their very large San Diego townhouse. (Since the movie is set in 2006, we can assume the careless Micah purchased the house via a highly suspect interest-only loan. Perhaps it’s just as well.)
Against Micah’s wishes, they consult a psychic (storyboard artist/advertising executive turned part-time actor Michael Bayouth) who suggests that what they’re dealing with is no ghost, but a demon of some sort, and that it might be a good idea to consult a local demonologist friend of his. Since Micah is stubbornly skeptical of the whole thing, he and Katy decide to hold off a few days on contacting the expert in things satanic. To quote Edward D. Wood, Jr., this proves to be “stupid, stupid, stupid.” For the next couple of weeks, Micah films them constantly – particularly when they sleep, or try to. As the movie progresses, the audience groans audibly in anticipation each time the couple settles in for the night as doors open on their own, Katie sleepwalks in the creepiest fashion possible, and things literally go bump in the night – very loudly. Pleasant dreams.
As cinema legend has it, classic-era writer-producer Val Lewton figured out that he could compensate for low budgets on his B-budget horror flicks for RKO by showing very, very little. He’d use fear of the unknown – the fear behind all other fears – clever pacing, and thoughtful stories to hit his audiences where they live. However, while Lewton’s films still work as dark fantasy, we’ve all grown a lot harder to scare since the original version of “Cat People” came out in 1942.
First time writer-director Oren Peli’s great achievement here is to make perfect use of his limitations and overcome all of that by constantly turning the screws, gently and somewhat humorously at first, then more and more as the not entirely rock-solid relationship of our two not-so-brilliant leads unravels under the pressure of an extremely sinister presence. He shows a really strong sense of rudimentary storytelling and character development and gets two very entirely believable performances from a couple of apparently completely inexperienced screen actors (there are no prior listings for either Featherston or Sloat on IMDb). Thankfully, he also displays a bit of Hitchcockian humor from time to time and clearly seems to understand the rather deep-seated connections between scares and laughter.
It’s not perfect, of course, but it deftly works around its imperfections. In tried-and-true horror film style, this is an obvious “idiot plot” – indeed, even among horror film characters, Micah is clearly either a gigantic idiot or someone whose never seen any horror film, ever. Peli gets around that issue while setting up early that Micah might have some borderline likable qualities, but he’s basically always been a pig-headed fool. Katie gets more of our sympathy partly for dealing so kindly with this doofus, but she is less than entirely in touch with reality herself.
It works because we are sold on the reality of Katie and Micah’s relationship just enough so that we get why they never consider doing what any sensible genre fan would do, and spend all their time in public places until a demonologist or two (or possibly a Ghostbuster or rogue demon hunter Wesley Wyndham-Price) can be consulted. And, I’m sorry, I don’t care what the ineffectual psychic says, there’s no demon around with the testicular fortitude to attack in a Denny’s or in the middle of a brightly lit 24-hour Indian casino or card club (there are several within a reasonable drive from San Diego). Well, at least not in any film made for less than $10 million.
But there I’m getting to the nub of the real effectiveness of the device which “Paranormal Activity” borrows from past horror mockumentaries, particularly the vérité style hit-turned-backlash fodder, “The Blair Witch Project.” Reportedly, an earlier plan was to reshoot the original film, made for a microscopic $11,000, and that would have been a grave and very expensive mistake (it was earning an average of $15,000 per midnight screening the weekend before I wrote this review). Peli’s little video-movie works brilliantly precisely because of its crafty crudity; simply sharpening the editing and adding a few simple but truly creepy effects has proved to be exactly the right move.
Here’s why: traditional production values tend to calm us with their association with the very safe experience of viewing an ordinary film. The use of common-as-dirt home video technology is crucial here, just as it was with “Blair Witch,” because we associate it with reality. Much as George Romero borrowed documentary film techniques in “Night of the Living Dead” to create an “anything can happen” vibe back in 1968, the use of home video makes us feel that what we’re seeing is somehow real, whether we like it or not. No matter what we tell ourselves, our primate brains aren’t quite sure this is “only a movie.” After everything that’s been foisted on horror audiences, it’s kind of reassuring that this simple trick still has the power to creep out even hardened horror fans.
Gorehounds, however, will have to look elsewhere. “Paranormal Activity” has none, and less blood than you saw in the last “Harry Potter” film. Indeed, it has the softest of all possible R-ratings. Subtract a few F-words and you’ve got a movie that would have to strain to get even a PG-13 (now a mark of wussy ignominy among hardcore horror fans), and that would probably be for sheer scariness and, I don’t know, the casual depiction of a young couple living together without benefit of wedlock. Those F-words are probably the most deliberate case of MPAA board manipulation since George Lucas had Obi-Wan slice off an alien thug’s hand back in 1977 just to avoid a potentially box office-killing G-rating.
Having said all that, despite my protestations to friends and everyone who’ll listen that I really only have a problem with movie gore and not horror, at a certain point, I just wanted “Paranormal Activity” to be over. Sure, I was laughing at each cleverly crafted jump-out-of-your-seat scare, but it was a just little too frightening to be fun for this admitted cinema chicken and, if I could have put the movie on “pause,” I surely would have. (For whatever reason, alcoholic beverages were supplied prior to the film, and I was grateful.)
What was pure fun for me, however, was looking at the faces and odd bodily postures of my fellow filmgoers – all presumably connected to the film industry in some way – some of whom appeared to be even worse off than I. I did, however, feel pretty good once the movie ended and survived to tell the tale – even though, with the help of some creepy sound, Peli actually holds the tension through the very last second of the mercifully brief end credits.
Now, my idea of a really great horror flick will always be beautifully crafted works of cinema that rely on numerous emotions beyond pure fright: “Silence of the Lambs,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “Alien,” and so on. I suspect that presented with higher budgets, Oren Peli, whose next film is entitled “Area 51,” will probably go down far more traditional paths and either build on his fabulous start or not. Productions like “Paranormal Activity” are like jokes that can only be told once. In this case, it just happens to be an excellent joke, and it’s on us.
Two-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
For as much money as Paramount made from “Paranormal Activity,” you’d think they could do a little better in the special features department than an alternate ending and a digital copy. They could have easily whipped together some interviews with the cast and crew, or at least a short featurette about the film’s grassroots campaign. What a pity.