Sunday, November 8, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

It's weird to think that The Blair Witch Project is ten years old. It doesn't seem like it should be that old, does it? But that length of time makes it easy to forget just how big a movie it was. It was a pop culture phenomenon, and pioneered how filmmakers and movie studios would use the Internet as a promotional tool. The Internet has also been a boon for smaller movies that may have otherwise never been heard of, especially those in the horror genre. As they pop up at different film festivals, movie news websites pick up on them and the hype begins.

And over the last couple of months, the hype machine has been kicked into overdrive for this year's "little indie horror movie that could," Paranormal Activity. The movie premiered at the Screamfest Film Festival in 2007 and spent two years touring film festivals and college campuses before scaring the pants of Steven Spielberg and getting a distribution deal from Paramount Pictures. And with Paramount's backing, the movie's got a nationwide theatrical release two weeks ago. With tons of glowing reviews, the super-hype has become almost palpable. The movie's poster even has "one of the scariest movies of all time" plastered across it. So let's see if Paranormal Activity is worth it.

The movie focuses on Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), a young couple who have recently moved in together. But the odd things happening around the house suggests that they are not alone. Katie thinks that it may be a supernatural being that she believes has been haunting her since childhood. Unconvinced yet curious, Micah sets up a video camera, hoping to catch the ghost in action.

It doesn't take too long for Micah's camera to pick up various occurrences in the middle of the night. Lights start flickering on and off, doors open and close on their own, and weird noises echo in the hallway. The oddest comes when Katie wakes up in the middle of the night and spends several hours standing by the bed, staring at Micah as he sleeps, before going outside to sit in the backyard. The fact that she has no memory of it afterward makes it even stranger. But when Micah starts egging on their supernatural visitor in order to catch it on camera, what starts out as mildly annoying behavior escalates to something more proactive and aggressive. And an unhappy ghost is a dangerous ghost.

Paranormal Activity will not appeal to people who don't like the "found footage" style of movie, or to those who have become jaded by movies that don't live up to excessive hype. But if you allow yourself to be sucked into what's happening, you'll find that it's actually quite effective. The actors are convincing; it doesn't rely on cheesy special effects; and it is crafted in such a way that it feels authentic. Granted, there's the "this is a work of fiction" legalese with the copyright notices at the end of the movie. And common sense will naturally tell you that it's all fiction. But it's the fun kind of fakery, the kind where as long as your suspension of disbelief can hold out, you'll want to think it's actually happening.

Part of what makes Paranormal Activity work so well is the efforts of writer/director Oren Peli. You would never guess that Peli has no formal training in filmmaking, because despite being armed with only a tiny cast, a high-end camcorder, and a $15,000 budget, the movie looks like it was made by someone with several years of experience.

I know that the movie could have been made traditionally, but Peli's use of the so-called "Blair Witch technique" makes the movie that much creepier. Peli uses it to build atmosphere and suspense instead of the hollow scares that plague most horror movies. He even goes one step further, making the antagonist our own imaginations. Instead of a seven-foot-tall masked psychopath with a butcher knife kicking in the door, the villain is booming footsteps coming from nowhere, lights flickering for no reason, a door that moves by itself, shadows that shouldn't be there. Peli makes darn sure that it is the unseen things that go bump in the night that we should be afraid of.

I also appreciated that Peli made sure that the ghost made its presence immediately known. I complained in my Cloverfield review that I hated having to wait half an hour for the monster to show up when it was the only reason I wanted to see the movie in the first place. And truth be told, there's more than a few movies like that. But Peli averts this, getting to the haunting within the first ten minutes. He doesn't waste any time running directly into the haunted house and pulling us in with him. Paranormal Activity doesn't waste any time getting to the point, and it's a better movie for it.

Another thing I thought was very well done was that it seemed entirely plausible for the camera to keep rolling. A lot of "found footage" movies lack that plausibility; when every bit of human logic would dictate that the characters should drop the camera and run for their lives, they keep filming. Why? Because there would be no movie if they thought logically. But Paranormal Activity's reasoning for continuing to document the haunting is actually believable: Micah's just kind of a prick that doesn't know when to quit. It's so simple, but the way the character is developed, it makes complete sense.

And speaking of the characters, let's get into the acting. With a movie like this, where the cast is comprised of only two or three people, the actors can make or break a movie. If they can't connect with the audience, then they'll tune out and you'll have a big ol' flop on your hands. But speaking solely for myself, I thought that Paranormal Activity's actors did a fantastic job.

Of the two actors, I thought that Katie Featherston was more impressive. She's in front of the camera for nearly the entire movie, so it falls on her to do the lion's share of the work. Featherston is up to the task given to her, and she's quite likable and sympathetic. She never gets really shrill or annoying, even as the haunting (and Micah's behavior) grows increasingly agitating. You wanted to reach into the screen and strangle Heather Donahue during The Blair Witch Project, but Featherston thankfully avoids that. She's not going to win an Oscar, but for the purposes of Paranormal Activity, she's perfect.

Playing her boyfriend and the movie's cameraman is Micah Sloat, who I thought was very entertaining. The character becomes more and more of a douchebag as the movie progresses. He seems less interested in helping Katie overcome her fears and more focused on antagonizing the ghost and catching it on camera. And though the character is a bit of a jackass, Sloat's performance is still an amiable one. I actually have to agree with Noah Antwiler's review and say that I could identify with Sloat's character. If all this weird stuff was going on in my house, I'd probably be preoccupied with trying to provoke the ghost into doing something so I could videotape the results and put the footage on YouTube. Maybe that speaks ill of me, but it's true. But regardless, I thought Sloat was a lot of fun, so I can't complain.

Naturally, Paranormal Activity will draw comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. Both of them have tiny budgets, were shot in similar manners, and have similar setups. The stars in both movies used their real names. Both had very unique viral marketing techniques, with Paranormal Activity's theatrical release starting in only twelve theaters and asking people to "demand it" through Eventful.com if they wanted to see it in their area prior to its wide release. And just like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity has gotten its fair share of backlash from people who believed that the hype was all in vain. But then, there's just no pleasing some folks, am I right? However, I'd actually go out on a limb and call it superior to The Blair Witch Project. That will be a pretty bold statement to some people, but I'd call it a possibility.

Hype or no hype, if you haven't seen Paranormal Activity yet, you've probably got your mind already made up regarding whether or not you'll like the movie. This kind of movie surely won't appeal to everyone, so if you do see it and don't like it, there's nothing wrong with that. But if you ask me, it's a damn fine horror movie. I don't know if it lives up to all of the hype, as if it ever could, but it's still a heck of a movie. So at the risk of adding to the hyperbole, I'm going to give Paranormal Activity four stars. It isn't a flawless movie, but it's good enough for me. And if any ghosts try screwing around with me like that, I'm calling the Ghostbusters. I don't care if the Ghostbusters aren't real, I'll call them anyway. See if I don't.

Final Rating: ****

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