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Entries in Paranormal Activity [2009] (1)

Tuesday
Jan052010

Paranormal Activity (2009)

Turn Off Your Cell Phone and Pay Attention!

I’m glad I didn’t see Paranormal Activity in a theatre. The hype machine was in full churn last Fall. Limited screenings built word of mouth, which gave rise to commercials showing audience members screaming and clutching one another; many of my friends reported incidents of morons who, if not talking and joking during the “boring” parts, were obsessed with letting all of their friends know—via text message—that they were watching a movie. Now that the film is on video, I was finally able to enjoy Paranormal Activity the way it was meant to be seen: in the dark, on a comfortable couch, with people who—for the most part—know how to shut the fuck up.

Still, the word of mouth on this picture had me scared. I’d heard that it was a fine movie if one simply “turned off their brain” and “went along for the ride”, which is average-idiot-speak for leaving all possibility of quality or surprise behind. Fortunately, this film proved to be much smarter than I’d ever hoped for. Writer/director Oren Peli has created the perfect slow-burn horror movie with a meager $15,000 and three natural, compelling actors.

What I love most about Paranormal Activity is the way it plays with audience expectations. The film starts out as an apparent rip-off of the similarly successful The Blair Witch Project: a day-trader named Micah (Micah Sloat)has purchased a fancy, expensive video camera with which he hopes to capture evidence of the ghost that has been causing weird things to happen around the house he shares with his girlfriend, Katie (Katie Featherstone). Not long after, we learn that the Katie has been followed by a spirit for as long as she can remember, and that the ghost may have been responsible for burning down her childhood home. Micah, the skeptic, finds the whole endeavor ridiculous, until the two call in a psychic (Mark Fredrichs), who warns them that they’re dealing with a demon, not a ghost. The layers of complexity build in this story, revealing not only secrets about the characters, but the key to the film’s very frustrating middle section, which has divided many people I’ve talked to.

You see, Micah begins acting in a way that many seem to think is unrealistic, or just plain douche-y. He borrows a Ouija board to make contact with the entity; he provokes the demon with taunts and an evolving sense of bravado that could be misconstrued as being out of character. Though the movie is a crowd-pleaser, it doesn’t hold the audience’s hand in explaining away Micah’s behavior; the answer is there, and it is brilliant. Though I won’t spoil any more than I already have, I will offer a solid, two-word clue to die-hard horror fans (one that the casual observer will likely have to Google): Jack Torrance.

Okay, yes, the movie’s clever; but is it scary? You bet! And not in the bullshit, slow motion CG ghost child manner that has, sadly, come to define mainstream horror in this last decade. No, Paranormal Activity aims for genuine creepiness and the kind of mundane scares that will keep new homeowners away from this movie for quite awhile. Oren Peli knows what would give many of us goosebumps: doors that swing just slightly, for example, or hallway lights that turn off and on a few times while we sleep, completely unaware of the occurrence. Micah’s video camera captures all of this and many more minor disturbances, which eventually become major ones—and, finally, full-on evidence of Hell on Earth. But the movie never comes off as showy. It’s like the first forty-five minutes of Poltergeist, when we jumped because kitchen chairs stacked themselves; it is unlike the last forty-five minutes of Poltergeist, in that there are no tree monsters or muddy upended graveyards.

I dare say that Paranormal Activity is a modern classic. At the very least, it is a thinking-man’s horror film, one that stimulates both the nerve endings and the mind. It’s also a fine example of how carefully considered characterization and storytelling can evoke real emotion in an audience without resorting to cheap scares or hiding behind a gigantic effects budget. The only thing scarier than Paranormal Activity is the people who find it boring.