Sunday, October 11, 2009

Paranormal Activity

In todays world, you can get a lot with $15,000. You can get an economy car, options stripped, of course. You can get a pretty damn nice motorcycle. In my case, you can get two pretty damn nice scooters. You can get an extremely nice home theater system. A week long vacation overseas could be done in style for that amount of money as well.

Last night, I learned you can also scare the holy hell out of an audience for $15,000. That was the budget for writer/director Oren Peli's terrifying feature debut.. I went to a 7:40 pm showing of Paranormal Activity in Georgetown, Maryland. Mind you, I live just outside Richmond Virginia. It's a two hour drive, under the best of conditions. Why would anyone in their right mind drive two hours to see a movie?

Well, that particular question doesn't take into account a few particular details. I make no claim to be of right mind, especially when it comes to a good movie, much less a good horror movie. I also have a friend attending law school in Washington DC, and any reason to go visit is a good one.

Under normal circumstances, that would basically explain it. But, the circumstances surrounding this little fright flick, have been anything but normal. If you click on the poster for Paranormal Activity and enlarge it to a size which makes the print big enough to read, you'll see the second line on the right hand side says, "Most frightening ghost story of 2007". No, it's not a misprint. Paranormal Activity was originally screened at film festivals in 2007, to an uproarious reaction from festival goers. The film community, especially the horror film community, were screaming, not only in the theaters, but the films praises at every opportunity. Dream Works, the production company Steven Spielberg is a partner in, bought the rights to the film back in 2007, with the intent of funding a bigger budget remake. Well, things with Dream Works and their distribution company, Paramount Studios, got rocky for a while, and a remake Paranormal Activity ended up getting shelved indefinitely. After all was said and done, and the dust had cleared, someone came to their senses and realized there was no rational reason to remake this little piece of low budget genius. Those of us who don't get to film festivals every year, and who are out here in the world pouring through articles and reviews on the internet, looking for a film which might just be a nugget of gold among the mountains of dung that are released to theaters, have been waiting two years for an opportunity to see Paranormal Activity. Driving two hours after a two year wait for any opportunity to see the film, is not much at all. It was worth the two hour drive, and the two year wait.

Now to the actual experience of seeing the movie. I have to tell you, there was some kind of street festival earlier in the day in Georgetown. I think it was the Georgetown Food Festival. And, if you've never been to Georgetown before (I'd never been until yesterday), it's streets have no shortage of bars, restaurants and high end shops of every variety. Given those facts, when the theater started filling up with people from their mid-thirties on down, I was a little worried. I really didn't drive two hours to see a film in a theater full of drunk or slightly toasted folks who were going  to be texting, talking on their cell phones or making some kind of stupid exclamations through the whole thing. There are some movies which are absolutely meant for audience participation, this summers My Bloody Valentine remake is a good example. Paranormal Activity isn't that kind of movie.

Maybe I was somewhat wrong about the crowd pouring in, but I don't think so, and you'll find out why a bit further on. Either way, it doesn't matter much, because throughout the entire film, especially in those moments of absolute silence in the film, you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. Dead silent. The entire audience, including myself, were completely engaged in the movie. It was slowly, steadily, patiently turning up the pressure on an audience which was absolutely riveted by each scene, and it was doing so with basically nothing. The only time anyone in that audience made any sound was when they were screaming and jumping out of their skin or making some breathless exclamation in direct, almost involuntary response to what they were seeing on the screen. If your not familiar with the plot, Paranormal Activity is about a young couple who move in together, at which time, they suspect something strange to be going on in their home. They get a video camera to attempt to catch some evidence of whatever it is that's happening at night when they go to sleep. It shares the same "found footage" idea as The Blair Witch, a film it's already being compared to. I think it's a poor comparison in more ways than not, if for no other reason than that I honestly believe Paranormal Activity is a vastly more effective film. With nothing at all, it produces so much more tension and suspense than not only The Blair Witch, but also the majority of other films out there, that the comparison just doesn't do the film justice. The Blair Witch was a good movie, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But it's almost as if Oren Peli, the writer and director of Paranormal Activity had seen The Blair Witch and saiid, "Really? That's the best you can do with that concept? I'll show you something REALLY SCARY." And then goes on to do just that.

Peli did a few things with this film which were just great to see. First and foremost, he finds a way to explain away one of the most common problems people have with what are essentially haunted house films, "Why don't you people just get the hell out of that house and never, ever, ever, come back?" It's a common thing heard from people who may not dislike horror films, but find some of those kinds of details hard to get by in order to let the film take them on the ride it has in store for them. I'm not going to tell you how he does that, but I will tell you that if you're on board with the film and the story (which it is terribly hard not to be once it starts), it's a plausible explanation in the situation, and actually becomes central to the plot as the film moves forward.

One of the other absolutely incredible things about this film is how little Peli uses to send the audience over the edge into squirming, gasping, whispering, tension. There is not one CGI effect in this film. There is not one money shot of the horrible creature designed in a work shop, made out of latex, and covered in stage blood or some other kind of liquid meant to scare the audience. The most terrifying aspect of this film, bar none, is exactly all the things you can't see. All the film does from the first moment to the last frame, is feed your imagination more information about why you should be afraid, and gives ever increasing, almost completely unseen, evidence as to how scared you really should be. Paranormal Activity puts exactly what you are afraid is going on in the dark, in the dead of night, up on the screen and says, "You're right. It's there. And you not only should be scared, you should probably be more scared than you've ever thought to be." If you were ever a kid who was absolutely terrified of what was in your closet or under your bed, to the point that you wouldn't move in hopes that whatever it was wouldn't know you were awake and come to get you, you know the feelings Paranormal Activity induces. Adrenaline is produced when you watch this movie and let it take you where it's wants to. I walked out of the theater laughing like a loon because of the amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins. That is, for me, the sign of a truly successful fright flick. It was just bluntly effective. Take notice of the fact that I keep calling it either a "fright flick" or "scary movie". I do that because most people have an association of guts and gore with horror films, and that's one of the most common complaints I hear about them. This film has none of it. No gore, no guts, no blood. It's essentially bloodless, and it will scare the living crap out of you.

Another of the things impressive to me about this movie is it's economical use of not only it's monetary resources, but also it's intangible resources. There's no fat on it. It never provides too much information, it never goes over board with the interactions between the couple or anything else. It's always just enough to ratchet up the tension a little bit more than the last scene. It's always just enough information about the characters to keep you interested in them, empathizing with them, and caring about what's happening to them. It never steps over the line to where you all of a sudden find yourself sitting there, thinking about the fact that you're watching a movie, because something you were just shown or just heard seems like something which only ever happens in the movies. The degree of economy and the success of that aspect of the film is something you rarely see from first time film makers. If Oren Peli can produce, with any regularity, films even close to the degree of success Paranormal Activity achieves toward it's goal, he is going to be everything so many people in the film industry and the community of people who love film hoped M. Night Shymalan would be.

The last piece of the what makes Paranormal Activity a truly above average, possibly even great film, is the performances. This is the kind of script which shares the qualities of films which have been adapted from small plays. There are a total of four characters who appear on screen through the entire film. Two of them, the couple who are being terrorized by the unseen force in their home, are on screen for the entire film. If we don't buy their performances, the film sinks, frankly it crashes and it's inexorably boring. But you do buy their performances, and more than that, you genuinely like them, feel for them and identify with them in many, many ways. You've had conversations like those. There's a good chance you know people very much like them. And even as the events in the house get more bizarre and terrifying, you're with them every step. There's never a moment during the film in which you feel like they are doing or saying anything disingenuous. Some of that is the script, certainly, but most of it is the strength of the performances. Like the rest of the film, their performances are perfectly pitched. When they're terrified, they're not too terrified, and I never had that thought, as I do often in horror films, "You are just not understanding the depth of shit you are in." Even as that's an early part of the story, and you understand why one of them isn't completely serious about what's going on, you can completely understand why, even if you would be taking it more seriously, you know a lot of people who wouldn't. I can't really give enough credit to Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat for how uncinematic their acting really is in this film, and I mean that as one of the highest compliments I could possibly give. There are moments in the film which many actors would recognize as extremely meaty, the kinds of things which can really help give an actor a reputation for possessing gravitas. Not once do you get that feeling while you're watching these two at work together. I'd shake their hands if I could, because if that weren't the case, the entire film would be absolutely silly non-sense, and it's not, for even once second.

When the film ended, and the screen went black following the last shot. For a minute there was dead, stunned silence in the theater, and with a black screen looming over all of us, the lights yet to go up, a girl somewhere down toward the front said, "Oh... We gotta go!" It was in no way something said in an attempt to be rowdy and funny, but an honest expression that if that's not the end, and something else pops up on the screen, I don't think I can take it. A second or so later, someone put their hand in front of the projector, and the theater erupted in screams........... from the shadow of a hand on a black screen. That's the kind of effect Paranormal Activity has on the audience. A friend of mine once commented that when it comes to horror films, you don't go looking for nuggets of gold, you go looking for flecks of color. More often than not, that's what you get, flecks of color. Sometimes though, you grab for that fleck of color and realize it's a nugget of gold. Paranormal Activity is one of those nuggets of gold, which spent two years buried in the mountain of muck, mud and crap that is the Hollywood studio machine, and I'm damned glad we finally got chance to find out it isn't just another polished fleck of color being hawked by a snake oil salesman. It's the real deal.

As of next weekend, Paranormal Activity is going to be released nationwide due to the demand it's gotten from movie goers nationwide. I don't care about Paramount's marketing plan, people did well to demand it, and will be well served by seeing it. Don't let the marketing or the hype get in the way, this film is better than all of that. There have been two films since the beginning of the summer which absolutely benefit from being seen in a theater. The first was Drag Me To Hell, because of it's purely cinematic quality. The second is this one, because it should be seen with an audience. If you have even a passing interest in scary movies, if you enjoy them at all, you owe it to yourself to see this film in theaters, with a big audience. And SOON!


  1. "silence and waiting can be more entertaining than frantic fast-cutting and berserk f/x."
    -Roger Ebert

  2. It is the use of suspense that puts this film a cut above the rest. Those moments of silence, the waiting to find out what is going to happen next, are all part of it's success.


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