Earlier today I finally caught up with this year's horror phenomenon - the shot on $11,000 spook-tacular, Paranormal Activity. Did I think it lived up to its reputation? For the most part, yes. I will say I found it to be more satisfyingly creepy than outright terrifying but I think it's difficult at this stage for it to impact viewers the same way it did unsuspecting film festival attendees. I also have to say that on this first viewing, I couldn't help but have part of my attention focused on admiring the resourcefulness of writer/director Oren Peli.
Unlike its faux-doc brethren, The Blair Witch Project, which was completely free of any effects work, Paranormal Activity does show some physical manifestations of its haunting. And while these moments are all convincingly accomplished (save for one brief, late-addition instance of CGI - which doesn't seriously harm the movie but yet is the phoniest-looking shot in the film), it was hard for me to not be speculating (with admiration) on how Peli pulled off some of his low tech tricks (was that done with wires? was there a magnet under the table?) rather than just being wrapped up in the story.
While critics of Blair Witch often complained that "nothing happened" in that film, I think the fact that we never saw the slightest sign of any movie-style trickery (no glowing eyes in the woods, no levitating bodies, no ghostly apparitions, etc.) is what helped it maintain such a perfect illusion. Paranormal Activity, on the other hand, risks breaking the spell of reality to deliver the kind of goods most audiences want out of a spook show and I expect most will appreciate its concession to showmanship. In endeavoring to please the audience, there's nothing esoteric about Paranormal Activity. Just as the film's 'Demand It' marketing campaign recalled the kind of bluster and ballyhoo of William Castle, so to does the movie's thrills show an ingratiating desire on the part of Peli to really work a crowd.
Given the film's limited (by Hollywood standards, at least - I wish I had $11,000 to throw around) means, this will inevitably not be an eventful enough paranormal happening for all audiences. And the avalanche of hype it's arriving in theaters on, while doing it a lot of good commercially, is surely creating the kind of outsized expectations that any film would be hard pressed to meet. But Peli doles out his story's supernatural incidents in steady increments, leading to some nice payoffs. Sam Raimi's recent return to horror, Drag Me To Hell, was referred to by Raimi as a 'spook-a-blast' and that's an apt description of Paranormal Activity as well. It's nothing that's going to seriously traumatize an audience, just keep them jumping and shrieking.
While a 'found footage' film like this is supposed to appear relatively artless and off-the-cuff, Peli does a couple of things in regards to storytelling that I thought were smart. One, he answers the 'why don't they just leave' question right out of the gate by establishing that this isn't about the house, it's about the girl, Katie, and how she's experienced similar haunting episodes throughout her life in every place she's ever lived. So until events escalate to a violent degree later on, the idea of leaving doesn't make much sense. And secondly, Peli makes the ongoing recording of events plausible by portraying Micah as an arrogant ass, whose machismo only acerbates the situation. While some will find Micah's behavior to be too much of a turn off, I enjoyed Micah Sloat's deliberately unsympathetic performance as a skeptic, control freak, and all-around ego tripper.
Whether or not Paranormal Activity scares everyone the same across the board (it won't, because nothing ever does), I love the fact that it's scared as many people as it has with such old-fashioned means. This is a movie that rediscovers (as Blair Witch did) how cheap it is to frighten an audience. Slamming doors, lights that turn on and off by themselves, screams in the night - Peli is working from a familiar bag of tricks but it just shows how hard-wired the human brain is to react to these primitive, primal fears. This probably isn't the movie to make hardened horror fans curl up in a corner but it may brush some of the cynicism off their love of the genre.