Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paranormal Activity: A Devilish Good Time

Echoing the mockumentary, "found footage"-style of the Blair Witch Project, director Oren Peli provides some much needed polish and finishing to this "real world" horror-trope. For a film with a production value settled around $15,000 (and filmed in about a week), Paranormal Activity effectively succeeds in creating, and maintaining, a suspenseful, genuinely creepy atmosphere without the aid of gore, torture scenes, or gratuitous special effects.

Paranormal follows the unfortunate happenings of Micah Sloat, a hopelessly goofy, technophilic day-trader, and Katie Featherston, an English student who's been haunted by a malevolent spirit since she was eight years-old. When the movie opens, Micah and Katie have recently moved in together and, much to Katie's chagrin, Micah has just purchased a brand new, wide-angle, digital camcorder to document the supernatural activity that plagues his girlfriend at night. Micah's boyish enthusiasm and persistence to explore forces he does not understand plays well off of Katie's exhausting fear and exasperation to solve the problem as quickly as possible. As their experiences become progressively more serious, the blemishes and cracks in this couple's "engaged-to-be-engaged" relationship come to the surface only to further exacerbate a situation more dire than either expect.

While the first 20-30 minutes might seem like nothing more than exposition cut with some YouTube "real ghost" clips, the film quickly evolves into something deeper as the sinister, unseen force methodically rattles both the characters and the audience members alike. Peli makes creative use out of his budget limitations, imposing a tense unease over the safe mundaneness of the empty home and bedroom. Suspension of disbelief is almost unnecessary in light of pure, simplistic horror ploys that still move swiftly past doorslams and creaky noises. While this Gentlemen wouldn't qualify the entire experience as "frightening," the majority of the theater certainly did and I was still left at the end with the feeling that I had a genuinely fun time. (Admittedly, it took me some time afterwards to shake off the events of 'Night #20' and the ending was pretty freaky, as well)

Film frights aside, perhaps what makes this movie effective is the honest humanity with which Micah and Katie are written and portrayed. From opening to end, you get the impression that Micah and Katie are real people, who do and say ugly things like your real next door neighbors would in such a situation. Even the early exposition scenes subtly play with, not just Micah and Katie's relationship roles, but gender politics in general. It's a quality that makes the characters not just relatable, but sympathetic, as they gradually lose control over their own home and relationship. Even at their most disagreeable, and no matter how much "fault" you may throw around, the film delicately reminds the audience that these characters legitimately love each other, and that whatever futile attempts they each may take to thwart the demonic presence are done only because it's all that they know - that they're doing the very best that they can. It may actually be this dynamic that makes the film the most frightening.

While not a "perfect" film, it doesn't really need to be. Peli makes impressive use of an $15,000 budget, two cameras, 5 actors, and 99 minutes. While less a staple for veteran horror movie goers, my suggestion is to abandon internet snobbery, sit back, and enjoy the ride anyway. If for nothing else, Paranormal Activity is an age-old lesson-learned for Hollywood big-wigs that sometimes less can be a lot, lot more. See Paranormal Activity as soon as you can and, if it's not playing near you, demand that it come to your hometown on their website.


Jstone said...

I was not interested in this at all. Now, with your endorsement, I will get a hold of it somehow.

nevie said...

i agree dude. i think the heavy media playup helped a lot because you're tense from the very second you walk in the theatre. and the movie builds up with smart timing to the very end, which was freaky as shit. it also helps to have a full theatre. i'm actually glad i saw it in the theatre rather than waiting til it came out on DVD. it's not so much the movie as it is the experience of the whole thing.

Ozkirbas said...

@JStone - do. You won't be blown away, but I think you'll be interested in seeing how much Peli is able to do with what he has

@nevie - I was reading around online while writing this when I ran into another review or two mentioning how part of this film's success is built around the idea that the movie-going experience can be a community experience, not just a group of individuals alone, in the dark, viewing a film. It's an interesting observation - I never really thought about what the movie would have been like had it only bee,n maybe, 10 other people